What Do Socioeconomic Theory, Feminist T-Shirts, and Tibetan Monks Have in Common?

Welcome, dear readers, to our first blog post! To  begin, we’re Sydney and Katie, bringing you the latest and greatest in the theme of freedom and domination, and how these two  opposing concepts can be examined in the work of two great theorists, Karl Marx and Adam Smith. How can these notions be applied to the laborer, and how are they different in The Wealth of Nations and Marx’s collected works?

“…it means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien” (Marx 72)

We begin Marx’s story with the laborer confronted with something alien and hostile! DUH DUH DUH! But our friend Marx isn’t talking about a literal alien nor a metaphoric Big Brother. In this story, we have the protagonist, the laborer, and standing in a dark corner of a room somewhere making that creepy cackling sound (you all have watched movies, you know what I’m talking about) is…the object…DUH DUH DUH!!


Goodness Gracious Marx, you never fail to throw us a good plot twist! It is the manifestation of the labor, ie. the product, that ends up a power with which the laborer struggles with throughout his complete life process. Marx then moves to religion to explain his point even further, “The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object” (Marx 72).

“If my own activity does not belong to me, if it is an alien, a coerced activity, to whom, then, does it belong?” (Marx 77)

Oh laborer, I hear you! Your despair does not go unnoticed! And our friend hears you as well! He writes, “The extremity of this bondage is that it is only as a worker that he continues to maintain himself as a physical subject, and that is only as a physical subject that he is a worker (Marx, p.73).” The laborer works to maintain himself, so that he may continue to work. But Marx does not only write about your woes, but brings to your rescue, communism (thank goodness, someone had to put an end to that weird cackling)!


“Communism…is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation.” (Marx 93)

Communism, for Marx, is the solution to a lot of our problems! It is the emancipation of the laborer from his labor. It is freedom from the crushing domain of the capitalist society in which the labor finds himself, the endless cycle of working to sustain to work. It is, “the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation” (Marx 84). This then allows for, “…the complete return of man to himself…” (Marx 84). And what is this return to man of himself you ask? You have come to the right place my socioeconomic theory, feminist t-shirt, and Tibetan monk invested friend. It is…


…well it doesn’t have anything to do with Shrek…or running through a field of flying flowers per say…but it will all make sense in a minute! What I was trying to say is it is man’s ability to engage in free life activity. This is man’s experiences in life based solely on human nature and desires that are not influenced by anyone but the individual. So did you see what I did there with the running through the meadow? Enjoying life? No? Well, Shrek is just a classic so I have decided to keep my vision of free life activity for all to see.

“In all arts and manufactures the greater part of the workmen stand in need of a master to advance them the materials of their work, and their wages and maintenance till it be completed.” (Smith 75)

Ah, and we find ourselves within another dominating relationship, but this time with Adam Smith. In his story, the laborer is found under the domain of his superiors in the workforce. These are the men, left with a surplus of materials, that employ other men and pay them in wages as they make profit off of the revenue. It is the masters of this story that hold power over the workmen. In their hands they hold both the materials to do the work and the wages once the work is completed, things that workmen desperately need.

“…who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public…” (Smith 288)

It is through this line that we see again Smith’s force of power rear itself and assert its dominance on the workman. Within this portion of the text, Smith contrasts the upper class with the other two. Unlike the lower and middle class whose interests align with that of the general public, the elite often have interests against the majority of the population. And it is through their domination of the economy (wealth, education, position of power within the job market) that they are able to, “deceive and even to oppress the public” (Smith 288).

So here we see the difference quite clearly between Marx’s view of the workers’ oppression and that of Smith. While Marx believes that the worker somehow managed to get himself into a really one-sided relationship with the object…


…Smith acknowledges that there is a very real agent directly imposing forced labor on the working class, and it is found in the form of the employers and landowners.


Now how can these ideas be applied to the modern day, and what’s all this talk about feminism and Tibetan monks? It will all be revealed shortly, good reader. We took it upon ourselves to find some examples of dominion and freedom in the world today, and connected them as best we could to what Smith and Marx meant by these concepts.

First up, dominion, and an article about a brand of t-shirts that might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Now that we’ve provided the comic relief, we take you now to our on-site T-Shirt Specialist to examine a very interesting situation involving clothing manufacturing in Mauritius. Over to you, Anya.


The article “‘Feminist’ T-Shirt Backed By Women’s Group Made In Sweatshop” reports that women, who work in a Mauritian factory that produces feminist t-shirts, are both underpaid and overworked. These t-shirts are designed by Elle UKlousycapitalism magazine and the Fawcett Society (the largest women’s advocacy group in the UK), promoted by some of the world’s biggest celebrities, and are
meant to promote feminism throughout the globe. Despite the fact that the t-shirts claim to support the empowerment of women, in reality, they oppress them. This anecdote portrays the
domination of the laborer by both the capitalist and labor itself.

Smith (domination by the capitalist):

The case of the women who produce the “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts illustrates Smith’s breakdown of society into the “three great orders” (Smith 286). These three orders are the “proprietors of land,” “those who live by wages,” and “those who live by profit” (Smith 286). The first two classes unknowingly work in the interest of society, while the third class knowingly works for their own gain.

Here is an important quote that illustrates Smith’s conception of society:

“It is the stock that is employed for the sake of profit, which puts into motion the greater part of the useful labour of every society… But the rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with prosperity, and fall with the declension, of the society. On the contrary, it is naturally low in rich, and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in countries which are going fastest to ruin” (Smith 287).

The owners of the t-shirt factory know their own interest and therefore are able to direct labor in the factory to their own advantage. Profit is high given that Mauritania is not prosperous, in fact the country has a GDP per capita of $2,200 (compared to $48,000 in the US), 44% of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and 10-20% of people live in slavery.

Marx (domination by labor itself):


One of the factory workers said, “how can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism when we do not see ourselves as feminists? We see ourselves as trapped.” The women are trapped by the cycle of labor that Marx describes in the following quotes:



“The worker becomes a slave of his object, first, in that he receives an object of labour, i.e., in that he receives work; and secondly, in that he receives means of subsistence. Therefore, it enables him to exist, first, as a worker; and second, as a physical subject. The extremity of this bondage is that is only as a worker that he continues to maintain himself as a physical subject, and that it is only as a physical subject that he is a worker” (Marx 73).

“It is true that labour produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labour by machines – but some of the workers it throws back to a barbarous type of labour, and the other workers it turns into machines. It produces intelligence – but for the worker idiocy, cretinism” (Marx 73).

Working in the factory creates a cycle in which the women must continue laboring to survive – they are dominated by the act of laboring itself and are slaves to the product of their labor. This particular case is especially ironic, given that the product of the women’s labor is supposed to combat the domination and enslavement of women. They produce something that is wonderful for some women, but that exploits themselves. The t-shirt is meant to “produce intelligence” – to further awareness around the world regarding feminism – yet, the women who produce the shirts make roughly $1 an hour and sleep 16 to one room.

This story is a prime example of the dominion of the modern day laborer. Not only are the women oppressed by the object they are producing, but they are also forced to labor for the profit of their employers, who pay them extremely low wages that barely allow them to survive.

But how can we find freedom in the modern world today? Especially how Marx describes it, it might be hard to free oneself completely of private property, and find a way to separate one’s life-activity entirely from their means to life. Well, that’s exactly what these Tibetan monks are doing with their art: mandalas. We take you now to our Monk Expert to get the full scoop. Over to you, Angela.

First, have you seen a mandala? Check it out. INCREDIBLE right?


Tibetan monks create these masterpieces from millions of grains sand on a paper or cloth surface. It takes several monks collaborating for weeks to create just one of these colorful spiritual symbols. This is a practice that was created thousands of years ago and takes many years to master.

After a mandala is complete, a series of prayers, ceremonies, and viewings follow for a few days. Once these rituals are finished, the mandala is completely dismantled by throwing all of the sand into the ocean.
This practice consumes the lives of many Tibetan monks, however this form of labor does not help sustain their lives. Here we see a complete detachment from one’s life activity and their means to living.

Freedom and T-shirts and Monks, Oh My! Until next time, good reader.




7 thoughts on “What Do Socioeconomic Theory, Feminist T-Shirts, and Tibetan Monks Have in Common?

  1. This was super interesting! The monks definitely link to what we were talking about with labouring for something beautiful – I wonder if communism would lead us all to be like the monks or would everyone being free mean free becomes the new dominated? Loved the Shrek by the way 🙂


  2. This was a really good analysis of the relationships that emerge in the labor process, according to both Marx and Smith. One thing that I want to point out, however, is that the fact that Marx’s worker performs “coerced labor” indicates that there is also a dominating force over them like the one you all identified in Smith’s writing. The employer in Smith is directing laborers into the process of producing an object. Yes, it seems like the object diminishes a worker’s freedom for Marx and the stock-holder does the same for Smith, but I think they can really be viewed as the same thing.


  3. Really interesting post! I thought the t-shirts article is a perfect example of workers being creating the very thing that dominates them. As you were saying, if the product of labor is alien from man, the product of labor must belong to an other being like the capitalist, causing a division within the species-being. Is it possible that the consumer is equally complicit in being an alien “other” over the laborer, contributing the division of species-being? Also, I’m curious what Weber would have to say about the monks’ work with the mandalas. Would this be deemed to be work worthy of God, especially because there is no profit to be had?


  4. I thought your take on the feminist T-shirts was really interesting! I agree that even though the factory provides opportunities (if you can even consider exploitation an “opportunity”) for women when factory work used to be exclusively for men– this change in factories arising from the introduction of machines that were not gender or age-specific that Marx addresses in Chapter 15 of Capital– it is completely ironic that the factory owner(s) is oppressing their workers’ labor power in order to produce commodities (and finally, surplus-value) that reflect a sentiment they’re directly going against. It’s weird that the biggest women’s advocacy group in Britain is promoting these shirts when their origin is not indicative of the message they’re attempting to convey. For me, it is both a feminist issue and a humanist issue. Since all of the workers are women who produce shirts with a feminist message, you’d think that the workers would be treated well. On another level, female workers or not, factories should not be exploiting their workers. In my opinion, when you consider the feminist T-shirts being produced, this situation gets worse because the company producing them seem to have a feminist and generally logical approach to promoting equality, yet they did not look into factories that would produce their commodities ethically. It’s all a big mess! Anyway, thanks for bringing this up– I love reading and talking about feminism!

    -Elizabeth Myles


  5. Thank you for this post! I’ve always had some difficulty imagining what “Species Activity” would actually look like, because almost every example of labor I could come up with had some sort of long term incentive or coercion attached to it. But mandalas do not produce tangible or useful skills, and they do not pay for food or rent. They’re not really in demand anywhere, because in the age of the internet if I wanted to see a mandala I could just google photos of one. The making of a mandala really just consists of making something beautiful for its own sake. You’re creating beauty for the sake of beauty, or just because you enjoy it. This is a great example.
    I also think that the Huffington Post article about feminist t-shirts being made in sweatshops is a great example of how all-encompassing capitalism and its effects are. Even an organization that is meant to be non-profit and working towards something for the sake of morality and justice instead of for utilitarian reasons finds itself unwittingly working against its own mission because it conflicts with capitalist values. It is very difficult to do anything that works against capitalism in our society. This is why I have such difficulty imaging Marx’s communist future for society. Because I’ve grown up with every aspect of my life dictated by capital in one way or another, I cannot imagine a future that is any different. However, I don’t think that this is because capitalism is all-powerful and will exist as the dominant form of social and economic thinking for all time; I think that this is more a failure of imagination on my part.


  6. I really enjoyed reading your post! I think that the feminist t-shirt example is a very insightful one and that you all do a great job of connecting it to Marx’s priciples. On the topic of the Tibetan monks making mandalas: I see what you are saying about how the activity of creating the mandalas does not contribute to them sustaining their lives, but wouldn’t that mean that they must have other means of sustaining themselves, whether it be by laboring themsleves in other ways or being supported by the labor of others? Or maybe the creation of the mandalas does indirectly contribute to them sustaining their lives by bringing people to the temples to view them? I’m still not sold on the idea that, within our capitalist system, we can do any labor that truly does not contribute to sustaining ourselves.

    Thanks for the great read!



  7. Your argument that “Smith acknowledges that there is a very real agent directly imposing forced labor on the working class, and it is found in the form of the employers and landowners” gives me a very interesting perspective to regard the relationship between the laborers and the capital owners. Good job on the “Feminist” t-shirt example! The worker’s account of “we see ourselves as trapped” is a convincing example of the laborers being dominated by the very products of their labor. On the one hand, the labors are enslaved by the laboring process and the laboring products, the t-shirts they make, because they work to make profits for others. On the other, they earn their own subsistence, which makes laborer an object according to Marx ; however, in this case, they can barely make a life out of the wage they receive. The example of the monks is another good representation of laboring for free expression instead of personal survival. I really appreciate the inspiring modern examples you guys choose!


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