The alienation of intellectual work

Image: Mitchell Luo


It is in the interest of the propertied class that the working class see itself as divided between physical and intellectual workers.

It is common among young people from the middle class, ranging from the lower middle class to the upper middle class, to enter the labor market directly in intellectual work functions, with little or no presence of physical work. Entering a university and having their first job after graduation, or even working in family businesses, mean that a good part of middle-class young people never have contact with any type of work that is not intellectual, such as physical work, even that of light intensity.

This phenomenon favors the division between physical work and intellectual work in society. What makes these middle-class young people who enter the market directly in intellectual functions feel better than young people who work in the labor market in functions of lower hierarchical position and in jobs not aimed at the intellectuality.

This deceptive sense of superiority, which often does not even accompany a higher salary, creates a false division of classes in the labor market. Instead of seeing the social division between worker and owner, due to having more contact with the “pawn” than with the “boss”, this middle class sees itself at the top of the social pyramid, above manual workers.

This occurs both in the middle classes with a liberal worldview and in those with a socialist worldview. The liberal middle class sees the working class only as the part that performs physical work, excluding itself from this social class, despite belonging to it. In this way, they see the masses as people to be exploited, believing that they are unable to play another social role.

On the other hand, the socialist middle class, mainly that which makes up the university left, sees the masses as people to be educated, enlightened and helped, as it does not see in this part of society a capacity for political autonomy. Both visions of the world, founded on the privilege of intellectual work, alienate this middle class, which starts to identify itself as a different class from the masses. However, from the point of view of the whole system they are the mass along with those they see as the mass.

Therefore, physical work, which is fundamental for the functioning of society and needs to be carried out, does not need to be exclusive to a part of society while another is seen as distant from it. In the same way that access to training for the exercise of intellectual work must be universal, there must be an equitable social division of physical work in society. Such an idea is not even new, in the Soviet Union many university students who had free access to graduation also had to work a reduced workload in factories or plantations. This policy aimed to value work and demonstrate the equal importance of physical and intellectual work.

If the middle class, which has enjoyed the privilege of intellectual work since entering the labor market, had contact with physical work, albeit in a reduced way, it would have less prejudice against workers called “pawns” and would develop greater class consciousness, identifying as a working class. It is in the interest of the owning class that the working class see itself as divided between physical and intellectual workers and not turn against the true ruling class in capitalist society.

It is evident that public policies aimed at inserting university students into the labor market in non-intellectual jobs that lead to the appreciation of work as a whole and, consequently, also raise the class awareness of these young people, would be harshly rejected by the Brazilian middle class. This would occur because non-intellectual work, which includes merely physical work, is seen as punishment for this part of privileged society.

*Bruno Machado is an engineer.


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