What would Karl Marx say about people working for startups? All these mostly young and smart guys and girls happy to devote themselves wholly to a working life that fulfils them and motivates them to give all they can – out of their own free will and often for a modest wage?
In the second part of our series “From the sociologist’s notebook“, our contributor Alexander Hirschfeld wonders: Are startup entrepreneurs and employees the free and independent individuals Marx was always hoping for? He tries to answer this question by applying Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism on the startup work world.
‘Commodity fetishism’, Part I: Industrial work
For Marx, work was more than production; it was a ‘life-activity’, through which a meaningful relationship between man and his natural and social environment could be established. According to the German sociologist, economist and philosopher, product and producer could and should be a unity of perfect harmony. This is true if a wooden chair produced by human labour remains connected to its material use. The evolution of trade and commerce, however, turned this simple product of labour into an exchangeable commodity. Its original “use-value” was increasingly replaced by its “exchange-value” and the tie to the worker’s labour was broken. The commodity started to live a life of its own and, by that, it has turned into a fetish. Theory teaches us that money is the worst of all fetishes, making every product carry a price tag independent of the person who made it.
With industrialisation and the rise of capitalist production, work has been transformed into a commodity as well, and has increasingly become dominated by a sole principle: the maximisation of profit. Therefore, the work process has to be organised most efficiently. Frederick W. Taylor was the most prominent character who maxed out this principle. In Taylorism, the division of work into material and mental labour (workers vs. management) is most pronounced. Work becomes a repetitive and specialised activity void of joy and meaning – fabulously illustrated in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. The standardisation of production makes the worker interchangeable, which lays the basis for capitalist exploitation.
Even though Marx’s theory evolved at the height of the industrial society, the rise of 9-to-5 office jobs in the 20th century seems to show strong parallels to his original diagnosis. But how do startup businesses fit into this equation? Did they contribute to liberating capitalism from the problem of “commodity fetishism”?
‘Commodity fetishism’, Part II: Startup business
Putting personal motivation up front, startup businesses appear to escape the “commodity fetishism” of capitalist production. While conventional businesses focus on incentives like money or promotion, enthusiasm and individual commitment are key values within the startup community. In addition, startups don’t need large staff, heavy machinery or expensive qualifications; the things they work with (laptops, small office space, skills) belong to themselves, not to their capitalist employer.
Most importantly, there is no boss telling them what to do. Instead, people work for themselves, developing their own projects, and putting their heart and soul into the realisation of their dreams. Therefore, the number of activities one attends to is fairly broad, ranging from financing and marketing to different ways of production. Startups tend to work together at coworking spaces and meet up to share experiences and expertise at events. In this context, it is no surprise that other startups are not primarily seen as competitors but as part of a cooperative network.
The young, well-educated, IT-prone, international crowd does not wait for the right job or company to come by but takes matters into their own hands by creating a job environment they feel comfortable in. All in all, working in the startup scene appears to reflect the needs and interests of its clientele. The tie between the worker and his commodity seems to be re-established.
Commitment as an exploitable resource
Being your own boss within a cooperative community, commodity fetishism, alienation and exploitation appear to be relicts of the past. However, one should keep in mind that the prime interest of any business is to generate revenue. The image of a cooperative community conceals the fact that startups are part of a competitive system as well. Each startup entrepreneur needs to keep costs as low as possible in order to increase his chances for success on the market. In this contest, individual commitment is no longer just a matter of personal motivation but can be turned into an easily exploited general resource.
Being on standby 24/7 and working long hours with low or irregular wage might not be felt as exploitation by startup founders and employees. You could highlight the creative atmosphere, the strong belief in the project and you could point to the invaluable experience collected. However, at the end of the day, one’s commitment and hard work is what makes the difference. The more energy people are willing to invest, the fiercer the competition will be. Following Marx, we might conclude that working in the startup scene is characterised by a new type of commodity fetishism.
As opposed to the industrial worker who merely gives away his labour force, startup folks also sacrifice emotions, personal interests, and social relations, which are used as means of production. Instead of being oppressed by one’s employer, startup entrepreneurs are directly confronted with the principles of the market. Adapting to their competitive environment, startup people use all personal and social resources at their disposal and rely on a tight and extensive regime of self-control.
Wrapping it up, it seems clear that this newly gained autonomy independent of any capitalist employer holds a great number of advantages. Most importantly, people are heavily involved in developing their product, bringing back the joy of work. This very advantage, though, at the same time poses a great danger. Since your personal motivation and emotions are the main resources in this field, your most individual qualities are at risk of being reduced to a commodity.
About the author:
Alexander Hirschfeld is a 29-year-old sociology Ph.D. candidate who has studied, worked and lived in Bamberg, South Carolina, Vienna and New York. His doctoral thesis is on the changing perception of the human psyche, which he investigates by analysing the emergence of the so-called Burnout Syndrome. His main interest lies with sociological theory, which means lots of reading and knowing the nicest libraries in every city by heart. Apart from that, he enjoys cooking, soccer and watching the same old movies over and over again. Alex lives in Berlin.
Read more about the origins of the “From the sociologist’s notebook” series by our co-founder: Introducing: From the sociologist’s notebook
And here is part one of the series: The habitus of IT entrepreneurs and startup geeks by Manon Pierre.