What is Alienation?
Marx first elucidated the concept of alienation in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, first published in 1927. He held that the worker, as a consequence of living in a society divided into social classes, slowly became estranged from their humanity. On the surface, the worker is an autonomous individual capable of making their own decisions. The capitalist mode of production, however, turns this to fiction. At work, the worker loses the ability to direct their own activity. They cannot determine who they associate with or the kinds of actions they take. These decisions are made by a boss, whose sole interest is to extract as much surplus value from the worker as possible. This arrangement turns the worker into an instrument, a thing, rather than a human being .
In order to explore this concept more deeply, we must understand what it is that makes us human, what differentiates us from mere animals. Most people treat this as a deep philosophical question that one could spend their entire lives answering. Marxists, however, understand that humanity has a scientific definition. Marx argues that conscious labor is what distinguishes humans from animals. He writes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, “Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Only because of that is his activity free activity. In creating a world of objects by his practical activity…man privies himself as a conscious species-being. Admittedly, animals produce. They build themselves nests…[but] the animal only produces what is immediately needed…they produce one-sidedly, while man produces universally. The animal produces only itself, while man reproduces the whole of nature.” . Because we work on nature consciously, we build on our successes, we learn from one another, we develop new ways of performing labor. This gives us a unique relationship to nature. We are able to alter the natural world, but the natural world then come back and alters us. The relationship of humanity to nature is dialectical, while the relationship of animals to nature is static It is the ability to alter and be altered by nature that makes us human. This relationship is contained in the collective labor we perform. The capitalist robs us of the ability to direct the labor process, to determine the ways in which we act on nature. Thus, in turn, means that the capitalist determines the way that nature acts on us. The capitalist determines the nature of humanity for workers. More often than not, the nature of this humanity is not humanity at all, but rather a machine-like repetitive existence. Capitalists would prefer their workers to act like robots because it increases their profits. When given the chance, the capitalist forces the worker to act in a non-human manner. This is the fundamental assertion at the heart of the alienation theory.
This is expressed primarily in the alienation of the worker from the product or products they create during the labor process. The design of the products created by the worker are not determined by the worker or even the consumer, but by the capitalist class which appropriates the labor of the engineers who actually design products. The capitalist, as we have seen, cares little for safety or even utility when determining how products are designed. They create products with the singular goal of maximizing profits, by any means necessary. So, workers have little if any control over the kind of products that create during the labor process. Further, the actual physical objects created during this process belong not to the worker, but to the capitalist. Workers do not own the products of their labor. They create cars which they will not drive, education they will not partake in, and healthcare which they are later denied. They produce for someone other than themselves. This contributes to the “instrumentification” of the worker. In taking the product of their labor, the capitalists are asserting that workers do not need the things they create. It is permissible for an owner to take food that a farmer grows because workers are machines, and machines do not need food. Of course, the workers know they are human, or that they should be treated as such. Therefore, they are aware that they are being degraded at work. This leads to a magnification of the mental anguish they feel. This awareness of pain is the source of alienation.
The alienation of the worker during the labor process is compounded by the fact that the worker is engaging in labor not because they have any desire to do so, but rather because it is the only way they can earn their means of existence. They are forced into labor merely to survive. This paradigm robs labor of its intrinsic worth and turns it into an alienated activity.
Alienation continues beyond the labor process and into the market. Once a product enters the market, no one has any control over it. It sets off on a course which appears governed by laws that are above humanity. This contributes to what Marx called reification, in which social relations between human beings are conceived of as relations between objects, between things .
One example of alienation Marx spoke of at length was what he called commodity fetishism. He argued that the real social relations of production are masked by the presence of commodities within a capitalist society. Commodities, rather than human labor, are seen as the lynchpin of capitalist societies. This view serves to mystify real social realities .
Is a commodity valuable because human labor was expended to produce it or because it is intrinsically valuable? Marx posits that values “appear to result from the nature of the products” . That is, it appears that commodities contain value in and of themselves. People in capitalist societies treat commodities as if the objects themselves contain value, rather than regarding value, as Marx did, as the amount of real human labor expended to produce an object. It is labor, specifically human labor, that gives products their value. However, this is not widely believed in capitalist societies. Human labor is treated as though it has no value. This gives capitalists an excuse to describe the world in a way that, although erroneous, serves their interests. As I said above, market relations are described as though they occur independent of human agency. If market relations are eternal, if they are above humans, then it follows that they cannot be changed or abolished. Commodity fetishism aims to make the working class feel powerless in the face of capitalist exploitation.
These feelings of powerlessness have substantial negative effects, both in the workplace and out of it. The condition of workers under capitalism makes them extremely susceptible to depression, anxiety, and related illnesses, according to a study by Wayne O’Donohue and Lindsay Nelson at Griffith University . Similar results were obtained by a 2006 survey on workplace stress by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America .
The Whitehall Survey of 1968 found that the stresses caused by the capitalist workplace were linked to high blood pressure and other physical ailments as well as mental ones .
These and other studies confirm that alienation is not merely an obscure academic concept, but a material force with real consequences for working people.
Alienation can be overcome only by restoring the collective human aspect of labor. People must work cooperatively to meet their own needs, rather than doing so just to get by. This can never be achieved under capitalism, a system in which the profits of the owning class regularly take precedent over the needs of the environment and the working class. In order to go beyond alienation, we must destroy capitalism and replace it with a system in why’ve the workers have control over their own lives. That system, of course, is socialism. Because the working class is the class that is alienated by capitalist production, it is the class with the interest in abolishing capitalist production .
- Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 and the Communist manifesto. Prometheus Books, 2009.
- Nelson, Lindsay, and Wayne O’Donohue. “Alienation, psychology and human resource management.” (2006).
- Shin, Lisa M., and Israel Liberzon. “The neurocircuitry of fear, stress, and anxiety disorders.” Neuropsychopharmacology 35.1 (2010): 169-191.
- Health Inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study”. Lancet. 337 (8754): 1387–1393.
- Marx, Op. Cit.