Faith, Theology — January 20, 2012 9:30 am

Undercover Boss, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Karl Marx

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As you may or may not know, this is “coming home” month here at TPQ. Well, I don’t know about you, but when I go home, I get into politics debates with my family (what can I say? I’ve always been a radical). Recently, I’ve been listening to lectures by Richard Wolff on Marxism (yikes!) and he has given me a whole new way of understanding economics and politics. Then I watched a show called Undercover Boss and I think I threw up in my mouth a little bit. The show demonstrated what’s wrong with America.

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Here’s what happened in this week’s episode: The CEO of Diamond Resorts puts on a (really bad) disguise and pretends to be a new hire at various jobs in the company. He works alongside receptionists, plumbers, etc. At the end of the show, he reveals to the people he worked with that he’s the CEO and then he gives the workers that he worked alongside a big bonus, like paying off their mortgage or a new truck. Super generous of him right!? I don’t think so, and here’s how Karl Marx showed me why:

Ok, let’s look at the idea of work more generally first. If we look around we can see that in every society there are people that work and people that don’t work (this isn’t necessarily bad, some of the people that don’t work are children, the elderly, etc.). In order to take care of the people that don’t work, the workers have to produce more than they need for themselves. The word that Marx used for that “more” is “surplus.” Surplus is the extra stuff that the workers produce that goes to take care of needs/wants that are not their own. 

For example: let’s say I have a small shoemaking business and at home I have a baby. In order to take care of the baby (who obviously can’t work), I have to make some shoes to sell to take care of myself and I have to keep making more shoes so that I can take care of my baby. Part of the money that I make from my labor of making shoes goes to me and part of it goes to my baby. Any of the money that comes from my labor that doesn’t go to me is called surplus (obviously, the surplus that goes to my baby is good!).

In the shoemaker example, I make the shoes and I choose to make extra shoes (in Marxist terms: I choose to produce surplus) so that I can take care of my baby. Notice, and this is key: As self-employed person, I’m in charge of my own surplus. 

Now, let’s say that I apply for a job at McDonald’s. Like everyone else, I want to “get paid what I’m worth!” But here’s the rub: we all know that McDonald’s will only pay me $10/hour as long as I am producing more than $10/hour worth of Big Macs to sell. If McDonald’s doesn’t make more than $10 off of my labor, then I’ll get laid off. This is true in all businesses that are organized in what Marx called a capitalist business structure. In other words: in a capitalist business, the worker does not get all the surplus from their labor. Capitalism is not a way of organizing government, it’s a way of organizing labor relationships in a business.

So McDonald’s makes money off of my labor, i.e., they get to keep part of my surplus and I have no say in what happens to it. Marx called this “exploitation.” Now, stick with me because it sounds inflammatory, but all it means is that in capitalism, the worker does not have control of their surplus. The caplitalist business keeps the worker’s surplus. It doesn’t matter if the worker is aware of this, or if you have a really nice boss with good intentions that pays you the “market rate.” It simply means that the worker doesn’t have any say over the surplus of their labor. In US corporations, it is the board of directors who decide what happens to the surplus (keep in mind the workers have no say in electing the board!). Thus, in capitalism, there is a built-in tension between the workers and the people who get the surplus. They must continually argue about how much or how little of the worker’s surplus that the owners keep. For example, every time you ask for a raise, you’re in essence asking to keep more of the surplus from your labor.

Most people recognize the difference between these two types of businesses, even if we don’t have language for it: We praise entrepreneurs. We all want to “be our own boss” (translation: we want to have a say in the surplus from our labor). 

Back to Undercover Boss: the money that the CEO gave to those workers came out of the surplus that the workers themselves produced. The whole show hides the fact that the only reason that the CEO can afford to pay off the mortgage or buy a truck for a couple workers is because he makes a profit off of all the workers. It doesn’t mean that the CEO is a bad person or has bad intentions, the business is set up that way. Every receptionist at Diamond Resorts brings in more money to the company than they are paid (or else they get laid off). Of that vast pool of surplus, the boss in the TV show paid back a little bit to the few featured workers out of the surplus of all the other workers. The owner/capitalist never gives the workers more money than the workers make for him because if he did, the company would go out of business!

As a Christian, I think that we should organize businesses in a way that’s collaborative and doesn’t have the built-in tension between workers and owners inherent in capitalism. There are other ways of organizing labor relationships. I think it only makes sense that workers should have a say over what happens to the surplus of their labor. For example, if businesses were set up so that workers got to vote about what happened to the profits from their company, then businesses would be more efficient, we could have less government intervention, workers would have a stake in their companies, people would have a reason to work hard. A co-op is an example of this. My wife used to work for a company in which all employees are part-owners of the company. Everyone gets an even share of the profits at year-end. Thus, everyone has an incentive and a real stake in the health and success of the company.

In capitalist businesses, relationships in the business are built on tension. As followers of Jesus, shouldn’t we strive for relationships built on collaboration and love? Maybe good ole Karl Marx can help us be better Christians after all.


If you’re interested in learning more, head on over to Dr. Wolff’s website: or check out his book on the recent US financial crisis: Capitalism Hits the Fan.

Editors Note: This post originally appeared via homebrewedchristianity

featured image: bettman/corbis

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  • Clear explanation, I enjoyed reading this.

    Seems like it would be much easier to implement for smaller and new businesses. I just can’t imagine international corporations going that route.

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