Mountain biking with Marx

Riding my mountain bike down the old Copper Range Railroad grade some of these last few days, I got to thinking about Marx and his ideas relating to alienation.

Now, when most people think about Karl Marx and alienation, economics comes to mind. The worker is alienated from the product he manufactures because it is taken from him without his receiving its full value in return (the capitalist takes a share of that value). But in Capital, Marx talks about another form of alienation, one which relates more directly to the physical experience of work. It is this form of alienation that I have thought about on recent mountain bike rides.

Through Marx’s lens, a carpenter working with a hand chisel would be seen to have a high degree of agency. Her mind and her muscles alone control the movement of the tool as it carves into the wood. She is not alienated because she has a direct, tactile relationship with the work process.

The interposition of machinery between the worker and the workpiece, especially when that machinery restricts its operator’s range of motion toward narrow, prescribed ends, causes physical alienation. As Marx writes in Capital (and as Harry Braverman quotes in Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century):

The machine . . . is therefore a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations that were formerly done by the workman with similar tools. Whether the motive power is derived from man, or from some other machine, makes no difference in this respect. From the moment that the tool proper is taken from man, and fitted into a mechanism, a machine takes the place of a mere implement. The difference strikes one at once, even in those cases where man himself continues to be the prime mover.

This can be seen in the example of a rivet gun on an automobile assembly line. Or a pneumatic drill in a mine stope. Or, much more starkly, in a fully automated manufacturing process.

To be sure, mountain biking involves the interposition of a mechanism, which obscures the rider’s tactile perception of the terrain. In my case, the machine is a Kona “Unit 29er.” Having only one speed and lacking both front and rear suspension, it is about as basic as mountain bikes get.

Still, the work of my legs pumping the pedals has to turn a 32-tooth chainring which drives a bike chain which turns an 18-tooth freewheel sprocket which turns a 29-inch wheel shoe tire finally transmits that energy to the ground, resulting in forward motion.

But these mechanical components alienate action from motion far less than, say, the gas-powered apparatus that translates a twisted throttle to a spinning wheel on an ATV.

Agency on a mountain bike is felt in the calves, most acutely during prolonged, steep hill climbs. In fact, the machinery of a mountain bike may serve to accentuate the sensory perception of topography, in comparison to walking, since riding a bike compresses elevation change into a shorter span of time.

Still, this is a form of abstraction.

The machinery transmits some sense of the changing trail surface from gravel to clay/mud to stamp sand. The old C.R.R. grade comprises diverse and varying aggregate, which puts up varying levels of resistance to the movement of the tires.

But this is not felt as acutely as it would be walking barefoot.

The mechanism of a mountain bike doubtless introduces abstraction into the act of movement through the woods.

Yet I find it hard to feel alienated when riding one.