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Marx on the Camino de Santiago

Meaning, Work, and Crisis

Janine Fitzgerald ranches with draft horses and teaches sociology at Fort Lewis College in southwest Colorado. These activities are possible only with the collaboration of her family, horses, colleagues, and students.

When I walked the thousand-year-old route of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain in September and October 2014, I expected to discuss questions of health with fellow travelers. I assumed that an ancient pilgrimage would be full of walkers pondering health issues and would provide an ethnographer’s panacea for “getting in.” I was wrong. I was surrounded by walkers from all parts of Europe, but they were pondering the meaning of work, capitalism, and their lives. I found I was seeing a profound crisis of capitalism and individuals struggling with alienated labor as discussed by Karl Marx.

Neither Marx’s theory of estranged labor in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts nor his analysis of crisis of capitalism in Capital lead directly to revolutionary movements that he envisioned in his other works.1 And what I saw on the Camino de Santiago was certainly not a revolutionary movement. Envisioning satisfying work, however, helps change the shared conception of what work is. Raul Zibechi argued that as we struggle both individually or collectively, we engage in an emancipatory process that, as the Zapatista’s Subcomandante Marcos notes, “builds, includes, brings together and remembers whereas the system, separates, splits and fragments.”2

I also witnessed an economic crisis so deep that it cannot help but result in fundamental change. An epochal crisis, as John Bellamy Foster wrote, is “the convergence of economic and ecological contradictions in such a way that the material conditions of society as a whole are undermined, posing the question of a historical transition to a new mode of production.”3

We simply do not know how the contradictions in the economy will play out, how polarization and dysfunction in nation-state politics will resolve, how climate change will affect human settlements and indeed all ecosystems, or how resource depletion will impact human populations. We also do not know how humans will react to the upcoming changes. We can guess that there will be a variety of responses including horrific Mad Max-type scenarios, as well as millennial and fundamentalist movements, as we have seen in Rwanda, the Middle East, and elsewhere.4 Utopian protest movements like the Occupy movement and Spain’s 15-M Movement will also sporadically erupt. Awareness of alienated labor and struggle against crisis, whether individual or collective, does seem to create imaginative space for change even if it does not necessarily reflect what has been thought of as revolutionary struggle.

Alienated Labor

Man is a species-being, not only because in practice and in theory he adopts the species (his own as well as those of other things) as his object, butalso because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.

—Karl Marx5

Marx’s elegant theory of alienated labor explores the very essence of what it means to be human.6 In light of post-structuralist theories, the word essence immediately raises red flags. At the same time, in light of the very alarming ecological news that we confront daily, our essence is worth revisiting and considering.

One day, I turned to the students in my undergraduate theory class. “Quick,” I said, “how have I interpreted Marx’s theory of species being?” One excited student answered, “To recreate nature, in a self-aware community where we work together but we are free individually and collectively. We work for the good of all nature including humans who are part of nature. We can imagine and plan what we are going to do and we make this plan and carry it out according to laws of beauty.”

Labor is what connects us with the environment of which we are a part, to each other, and to aesthetics; it is what inspires our imagination and logic, helps us plan for the future, and feeds and shelters us. In later more technical discussions of labor, Marx wrote that labor is “a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; and it is an external natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore life itself.”7

In sum, we are useful both to ourselves and the landscape around us. We are both individually artistic, and in community. We are physically challenged through labor. So labor, in this sense, gives our lives meaning. According to Marx, it is the human universal, and capitalism has alienated us from what humans share.

My own experience of the kind of labor in species being, as Marx viewed it, would without a doubt be haying with draft horses. I work with my family and an old cowboy who knows horses better than the English language. We are moving hay just at the right time and under the right conditions to feed the horses and cows for the winter. As evening approaches we stop to witness the drama of a Golden Eagle being mobbed by redwing blackbird males for stealing a fledge from a nest. We are both a part of something and we also witness and participate in beauty. The anthropological record, similarly, is full of descriptions of this kind of work among traditional peoples from all over the world including the Fire Shamans of the Amazonian Kayapo and the hunting gathering practices of the San Bushman of the Kalari desert.8

Of the Camino de Santiago walkers I interviewed, eighteen of the thirty-five (who were from many countries, including Germany, France, Denmark, Austria, Australia, Greece Ireland, the United States, and Chile) were pondering and actively working to create meaning related to their work. I categorized the issues around work as: (1) meaningless jobs, (2) community and/or helping people, (3) connection to nature, and (4) inclusion of non-Western thought, spiritual concerns, and activities.

Many walkers were determined to escape what they termed “BS jobs.” One man had left an engineering job and was walking the Camino to figure out what to do next. One woman, who led tours in a European country, could no longer stand the emptiness of being a tourist guide. She wanted only to walk and had been walking for several months. Another young man felt a lack of respect and autonomy associated with teaching and had chosen to move and teach languages elsewhere. A couple of Spanish teachers had retired early because their job had become associated with too many irrelevant administrative demands.

Walkers also discussed the desire for community and to help people. One retired engineer felt that his life and indeed his job had left him empty, without connections or directions. He spent months walking different routes of the Camino to find a sense of social connection. Two petroleum engineers, while happy enough with their jobs, felt no sense of community or connection in their work. An actor also felt disassociated with her fellow actors and sought a greater community. A nurse thought she could no longer do her job as budget cuts increased the ratio between nurses and patients. Finally, a young electrician said that he did not feel as if he was contributing to society and he was returning to school to get a degree in counseling, so he could “help people.”

Walkers most commonly expressed a desire to find work that connected to nature. This concept seemed to mean that instead of constantly extracting resources, they wanted to contribute to ecological health. This kind of labor, many of the walkers felt, would help both the earth and the health of humans. One young man was determined to leave his work in electrical engineering to work in herbology. And another young man looked for work in biology that was not related to resource development. Finally another tourist guide had left conventional guiding to engage in tourism around traditional handicrafts, hunting and gathering skills, and meditation.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion around work was the idea that there is more to life than what is offered by what was termed a rational Western world view. This seemed to be defined as one that discredits intuition, dreams, faith, and emotions as valid ways of knowing. One young man asked me, “Do you believe in emotional intelligence?” as a lead-in to a discussion about bringing practices of meditation and dream work into his master’s thesis in international business. He hoped to find work or conduct workshops that introduced “emotional intelligence” to the business world. A French woman was studying theology and exploring her Christian faith that she thought was necessary for her to teach English to children. Spirituality, she told me, was simply about love of oneself and love of our fellow beings. “I cannot teach if I do not explore what love is,” she said. Another European held that the Native American Sun Dance, in which he had participated for many years, framed his views in art and his work as a teacher. A physical therapist found meaning in his work through haptotherapy, a technique that allows patients to access their emotions and empathy through touch, in order to facilitate physical healing.9 He would have left physical therapy, Holland, and the Western world if he had not discovered haptotherapy.

Marx’s concept of species being and estranged labor is not (or should not be) such a radical idea. Humans live in social communities and engage in rituals and social exchanges organized around meeting the needs of the population. These are the “social relations of production.” Yet, of course, we do more than earn and eat. We hunger for beauty, for connection, for autonomy to be creative and implement our ideas. The walkers wanted these things, as does every human being. They were creatively engaged in a struggle to make sure that they had satisfaction in their work. The two Spanish women who seemed most satisfied with their work were not pilgrims. They traveled throughout Spain restoring altars at churches. They said they loved their work because they looked out on the forest as they ate lunch, met local townspeople, inspected and admired the mastery of the churches, and used their imagination and skills to match paint and observe patterns. Finally, they participated in the long history of Spain. No doubt Marx, William Morris, and, in a different way, Miguel de Cervantes, would have understood.


“La Crisis es Capitalismo” (The Crisis is Capitalism)

—Banner seen at Puerto Del Sol Protest, May 15, 2011

The topic of conversation on the lips of every Spanish person (and most Europeans) is “La Crisis.” The official story is: Spain’s economy is stalled because of the 2008 financial meltdown and the subsequent crisis of the Euro zone. The P.I.G.S. (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) have been the hardest hit of all European countries due to imprudent fiscal policies and excessive government spending.

The Euro zone crisis can be traced to 2009 when European banks asked for bailouts to prevent sovereign default. Debt and deficit spending had increased dramatically as a result of the complicated tangle of borrowing following the establishment of the euro. Municipalities all over southern Europe piled on debt and Spanish municipalities borrowed heavily from the European Union and Wall Street to finance extravagant municipal projects. Violations to the Maastricht treaty of 1992, which required no more than 3 percent deficit spending to GDP, were ignored. The assumption was that the rapid growth of the housing/real estate market would take care of increased levels of debt.10

In exchange for a bank bailout of 100 billion euros, and in a dramatic policy reversal, the Spanish government agreed to implement austerity programs: it would increase taxes, cut unemployment benefits, increase the retirement age to sixty-eight, decrease civil servant pay, and decrease government contributions to Social Security.11 Spanish foreign debt is now 1.9 trillion euros, or over 41,000 euros per citizen, and unemployment is astronomical. In the distorted logic of austerity, this debt is blamed on overspending and lack of fiscal rectitude.12

Instead, there is a crisis created by the web of mystification surrounding profit and money. Marx discussed this conflation in Volume 1 of Capital, where the two-fold nature of money as both a commodity and means of circulation can lead to hoarding among the capitalist class. Capitalists no longer reinvest their profits into businesses that produce commodities to sell.13 Instead, money is used to speculate in monetary claims to wealth (gold and silver in Marx’s time).14 The historical process as to why an economic system dependent on profit through manufacturing turned towards a fascination with money is beyond the scope of this paper.15 Suffice to say that since the 1960s, an increasing share of GDP comes from the financial sector. Debt is increasingly considered an asset rather than a liability when debt is converted into tradable securities, and the growth of debt has outpaced the growth of economic activities for many decades.16 World currency trading (literally buying and selling money) is nominally $1.8 trillion a day, which translates into the entire GDP of the world being traded daily.17

Marx wrote of the capitalist’s lust for money: “On the eve of the crisis, the bourgeois, with the self-sufficiency that springs from intoxicating prosperity, declares money to be a vain imagination. Commodities alone are money. But now the cry is everywhere that money alone is a commodity! As the hart pants after fresh water, so pants his soul after money, the only wealth.”18

As a result, solvent businesses are denied credit in Spain because the banks only want repayment. “‘So many times I went to the bank and said what did I do wrong?,’ said Mr. Moreno [a profitable skateboard manufacturer], who recently had to lay off most all of his employees, including a childhood friend, ‘But they just said they wanted their money back.‘”19

While it is doubtful that Marx ever imagined the extensive financial system we see today, he did write:

With the development of interest-bearing capital and the credit system, all capital seems to double itself, and sometimes treble itself, by the various modes in which the same capital, or perhaps even the same claim on a debt, appears in different forms in different hands. The greater portion of this “money-capital” is purely fictitious. All the deposits, with the exception of the reserve fund, are merely claims on the banker, which, however, never exist as deposits.20

Perhaps the best example of the massive illusion of money simply making more money, in a self-generating process, was found in the housing market itself. Houses were widely viewed as a commodity where time added value. It was as if factories that manufactured and sold widgets using cheap labor existed in every neighborhood of the industrialized world. Houses were built and bought with credit, second mortgages allowed for more houses to be built, and then the houses magically doubled in value. The lending companies and financial institutions promoted this idea, and apparently believed it, as debt was bundled and traded for billions of dollars on the international market. But houses are not iPods manufactured by cheap labor in China, and the illusion fell apart. Interestingly, while the 99% are no longer bedazzled by this illusion, the financial sector, the European Union, the World Bank, the Federal Reserve, and many national governments continue to think that borrowing is the key to wealth creation.21 While capitalism still clearly generates profit through manufacture and exploitation of labor, global financial assets have grown to represent three times the global GDP.22

The landscape in Spain reflects the crisis. I saw the evidence of it deepen as I walked from Basque country through Cantabria, Asturias, and finally Galicia. Basque country is the least hard hit by the crisis because it did not participate much in the housing boom and manufacturing continues through the successful Mondragon Co-op Corporation.23 Miles of empty housing developments and abandoned parking lots dot the landscape of Cantabria, while abandoned highway projects decorate the Asturian and Galician landscape. A glittering structure named the City of Culture is embedded on the hillside of Santiago de Compestela in Galicia, where one local politician called it “a cemetery for money.”24

So what is La vida subprime (subprime life)?25 It is unemployment. As of September 2014 nearly one-quarter of all Spanish citizens (24.4 percent) and over half (53.4 percent) of the Spanish youth were unemployed.26 Twenty-three percent of the entire youth population (twenty-eight and younger) is unemployed in Europe. Some have described the levels of unemployment in Europe, especially in Spain and Greece, as creating a generation that will never participate in economic life. An International Labor Report report warns that high levels of unemployment lead to increased levels of crime and drug use, as well as depression and in some cases anger turning to violence.27 Twenty-five percent of the youth population have been labeled as nini’s ni trabajar ni estudiar (“no work, no study”).28 Spanish youth have claimed the title generación cero (“generation zero”) to highlight the issues facing the generation.

Immigrants and Spanish citizens are fleeing Spain in record numbers.29 As of 2013, 50 percent more Spanish citizens registered to work in London than in 2008.30 Galicia has lost over 200,000 residents in the past fifteen years.31 Worries about a brain drain also plague Spain, as professionals including doctors, nurses, and school teachers flee to more economically stable countries.32

Finally, the crisis is causing deep anxiety and depression among the Spanish people. A 2010 survey of primary care clinics found that, compared to 2006, there was a substantial increase in mood disorders, anxiety, and alcohol-related disorders. The study says, “About one-third [of]mental health disorders could be attributed to the combined risks of household unemployment and mortgage payment difficulties.”33 Like Greece, Spain has had to confront cases of suicide and in some cases self-immolation, leaving what the papers refer to as viudas de la crisis (“widows of the crisis”). Sixteen of the twenty-nine Spanish pilgrims I spoke to were dealing directly with circumstances related to the crisis.

One couple from Barcelona could not find work. They were going to spend three months walking the Camino where they could stay in pilgrim’s albergues (hostels) for cheap or free. They gathered figs as they walked to eat and share. After they finished they were going to marcharse—to march or leave. They thought maybe they would go to Scotland. The couple represented a group of Spanish who had chosen to leave Spain because of the crisis. A resident of Oviedo was working to improve her English so she could practice law in England. One policeman was trained as a veterinarian, but working as a vet was too low-paying and ill-respected in Spain. He considered moving to a country where he could practice veterinary medicine and make a decent living. His girlfriend with an engineering degree also considered leaving as she had no work. “There are no jobs here” and aqui no hay nada (“here there is nothing”) was repeated over and over. An accomplished flamenco guitarist could no longer find paid work playing the guitar. He had become a baker, but now the bakery was also laying him off. He was thinking of going to China, where flamenco guitar is popular.

The guitarist came from Seville, where the unemployment is so bad that many have turned to crime and dealing drugs. Drug use was also on the rise because of the depression and anxiety of dealing with the situation. A hostel keeper noted that many pilgrims walked the Camino to deal with the depression of being unemployed. Another woman from Barcelona actually had a good job in her field of study (telecommunications), but she felt worried all the time. Although her situation was stable, she fled the uncertainty about the economic well-being of her parents and family. Todo es muy triste aquí en Espana (“Everything is very sad here in Spain”), she said. Another young man who plays the blues also moved to London, where he could make money busking and playing in bars. He felt that the national state of depression made the art and music scene less vibrant. Several Spanish youth walked the Camino following college graduation as they pondered what to do next.

It appears that the crisis may be pushing youth into more traditional ways of life. One couple had done an internship with traditional Galician farmers and an internship with Irish sheep herders. They were not sure what the next move would be, but they were excited by a renewed interest in traditional agriculture in Spain.34

Consciousness and Social Change

“Que se acaba el capitalismo y todo esto mierdo” (May capitalism end and all of its shit)

—15-M Movement protester35

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

—Karl Marx36

The economic system of capitalism has adapted and changed in response to worker movements. Capitalism continues to morph and change without a transition to a more just system. The brutal trajectory of history begs the question of whether consciousness of alienation or the materiality of crisis matter to the dynamics of social change. Often overlooked in these discussions is the sophistication of Marx’s dialectical method where forms of consciousness and social structures are part of the movement forward of history. The dialectic has been oversimplified as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The struggle between opposing forces does not end in a tidy “synthesis,” but instead carries forward and amplifies previous contradictions. As David Harvey noted, the dialectic is not a closed method of analysis. Instead this methodology is ever expanding where contradictions are not automatically solved; instead they are internalized and replicated, often on a larger scale, in an open-ended dynamic, generating new constraints and possibilities.37 From my perspective the struggle of both individuals and collectives creates space that allows for the possibility of fundamental transitions.

But it is unclear as to what directions this change will take. This uncertainty may be related to the depth of this epochal crisis since the solutions to resource overreach, climate change, and a never-ending debt cycle seem unclear. The 15-M and Occupy movements, while unable to maintain a presence, helped imagine another world. Reminiscent of the Paris Communes, these movements set up immediate consensus-based governing systems, and ways to distribute food, medicine, financial assistance, child care, and education materials. The new political party Podemos may be transforming politics and economics in the Euro zone. How the “99%” interpret social economic reality may become important in ways that we cannot currently understand.

Walkers on the Camino de Santiago, as well as many villagers along the route, rejected having awful jobs that they saw as soul killing. They understood that capitalism was in crisis and that there appeared to be no way out of the debt trap. They also recognized that nature was acting strangely whether it be drought in Cantabira, floods in Asturias, or warm summer days in October in Basque Country. While none of this awareness is revolutionary, it certainly adds to an awareness of what is desired as the epochal crisis unfolds. An Occupy protester in Seattle held up a sign, “What Do We Want? A Whole New World!”


  1. Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967) famously discussed the role of an enlightened working class in leading the revolution in the vanguard of the proletariat.
  2. Raul Zibechi, Territories in Resistance (Oakland: AK Press: 2012), 52.
  3. John Bellamy Foster, “The Epochal Crisis,” Monthly Review 65, no. 5 (October 2013): 1–12.
  4. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York: Verso, 2007).
  5. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 3, 275–77.
  6. Ibid, 296.
  7. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 133.
  8. Susanna B. Hecht and Alexander Cockburn The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters (Toronto: Anansi Press, 2009).
  9. J.J Duyndamm, “Haptotherapy and Empathy,” International Journal of Haptonomony and Haptotherapy, February 3, 2013,
  10. How the Euro Zone Ignored Its Own Rules,” Spiegel Online, June 10, 2011,
  11. Mariano Rajoy Announces €65bn in Austerity Measures for Spain,” Guardian, July 11, 2012, http:/
  12. Eurozone Debt Web: Who Owes What to Whom,” BBC, November 18 2011,
  13. In both Marxian and Keynesian theory a failure to invest leads to economic crisis.
  14. See David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (New York: Verso, 2010) for a clear concise treatment of Marx’s ideas on money from Volume 1 Capital.
  15. For clear discussions of the crisis see John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009); Fred Magdoff and Michael. D. Yates, The ABC’s of the Economic Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009); and the video “RSA Animate – Crises of Capitalism,” uploaded June 28, 2010,
  16. Magdoff and Yates, The ABC’s of Economic Crisis, 76.
  17. Ibid, 56.
  18. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 138 (Chapter 3, section 3b).
  19. Suzanne Daily, “Bank Loans Dry Up in Spain-small and Medium Business Fight for Life,” New York Times, May 27, 2012,
  20. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), Chapter 29.
  21. Quantitative easing is best understood as a debt-money-debt cycle, where the Federal Reserve prints money backed by bonds. The newly printed money is then lent to banks so that banks can lend more money.
  22. William Tabb, “The Criminality of Wall Street,” Monthly Review 66, no. 4 (September 2014): 13–22.
  23. The Mondragon co-op, started by a priest in 1956 to reduce poverty in the Basque region, runs on a principle of equality where the highest paid manager can make no more than six-and-a-half times the lowest paid worker. The co-op is worker owned and therefore when one entity fails, as did the Fagor company, the 5,600 newly unemployed workers are hired by other entities within the co-op. While the co-op has not completely escaped the effect of the crisis it has significantly contributed to the 12 percent unemployment rate of Basque country (the lowest in Spain). See Giles Tremlet, “Mondragon: Spain’s Giant Co-operative Where Times Are Hard but Few Go Bust,” Guardian, March 7, 2013,
  24. Giles Tremlett, “Spain’s Extravagant City of Culture Opens Among Criticism,” Guardian January 11, 2011,
  25. German Labrador Mendez, “Las Vidas Subprime: La circulación de Historias de Vida Como Tecnologia de Imaginación Politica en la Crisis Espanola,” Hispanic Review 80 (no. 4. 2012): 557–81.
  26. European Commission, “Eurostats–Unemployment Statistics,” updated November 2014,
  27. Fiona Gavan, “Spain’s Lost Generation: Youth Unemployment Surges Above 50%,” Telegraph, January 27, 2012,
  28. Carmen Perez-Lanzac, “Paro Juvenil: La apatia de un nini,” El Pais, November 2, 2014,
  29. Fiona Ortiz, “Spanish Population Falls as Immigrants Flee Crisis,” Reuters, April 22, 2013,
  30. Euroflight and Refugees Fleeing EU Crisis in Record Numbers,” August 30, 2013,
  31. Chris Marcus, “Broken Visions Dot Galician Landscape,” BBC, August 2, 2012,
  32. Spain’s ‘Brain Drain’ Worst in Western Europe,” The Local, September 1, 2014,
  33. Margalida Gili, et al., “The Mental Health Risks of Economic Crisis in Spain: Evidence from Primary Care Centres, 2006 and 2010,” European Journal of Public Health, April 20, 2012,
  34. Coag, “El Campo se Convierte Refugio Frente a la Crisis Economica,” Noticias Info Agro, July 4, 2011,
  35. Protestor quoted in “Claves para entender el movimiento 15-M. Keys to understand 15-M (English Subs)” (video), uploaded October 8, 2011
  36. Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 15.
  37. David Harvey writes: “We only have to review what we have already experienced in reading Capital; the movement of its argument is a perpetual reshaping, rephrasing and expansion of the field of contradictions.” A Companion to Marx’s Capital, 67.
2015, Volume 67, Issue 01 (May)
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