The concept of alienation is one of the most important parts of Karl Marx’s earlier philosophy. In the sociologist’s later works, it was also presented but more as a social phenomenon rather than a philosophical concept. Discussing this theory in his essays, Marx managed to reveal how few the working class had at that time, how capitalists exploited their employees, and how all of that affected society (Jiang 2012). Still, it is a very controversial question whether this theory is relevant or not and whether it can somehow be applied to the modern industry.
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The alienation describes the process whereby an individual becomes alien to his surrounding and the world he lives in (Marx 1844). Karl Marx saw this process as a direct consequence of existing in the society with divergent social classes. When an individual becomes a mechanical part of a particular social class, it gradually deprives him of his own humanity. As the basis for his theory of alienation, Marx chooses the capitalist mode of production.
He states that although every worker is individual and autonomous, he is never perceived in that way. Economically, workers just produce objects that do not belong to them but belong to the bourgeoisie. Moreover, the tasks they perform are dictated by the same bourgeoisie. They do not like what they do and do not get any rewards. The more they produce, the less they have, and the less they care about something except basic human needs like eating, drinking or procreating (Marx 1844).
Consequently, workers do not fully comprehend themselves as masters of their own lives and the directors of their own actions, do not think of their lives or destiny, do not try to determine their global objectives, relationships with other people or feelings they have, and so on. Finally, they partly lose the reality because they have to be always concerned about those basic needs. As Marx (1844, para. 9) states, a ‘worker loses his reality to the point of dying of starvation’.
Now, let us take a closer look at Marx’s concept of alienation under capitalism. According to Marx’s theory, alienation manifests itself in workers’ day-to-day activities and actions, and can be divided into four various categories closely connected with each other.
Firstly, that is the alienation of workers from their own work and from the objects they produce. In other words, there is a subject and an object, and those are clearly separated from each other. As Marx (1844, para. 8) writes, ‘the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien’. He calls it the objectification of labour. What is even more important, a man is robbed not only of the product of labour – a worker himself is considered as a commodity. And the more objects a man makes, the less expensive commodity he becomes. The same can be explained from another perspective.
While producing something, a worker puts a part of his own self into a product, and when the product becomes an independent entity, unconnected to a worker, he loses that part of himself as well. According to Marx (1844), that is called the externalization of a worker in his product. He says, ‘the worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object’ (Marx 1844, para. 10).
The second manifestation of alienation is the estrangement of a worker from working, in other words, from the very act of producing. A man does not choose the productive activity, he is a part of it only because he is forced to – he has to earn money to live. Hence, the capitalism requirements leave no other choice for workers but to be engaged in alienated labour. The labour is ‘not voluntary but forced’ (Marx 1844, para. 21).
Marx (1844, para. 21) says that such kind of activity is ‘external to the worker’ since he does not feel happy or complete while producing objects, just the opposite, he feels miserable. He does not develop his mind and does not train his body – he gradually destroys the first and the second. Since a man feels miserable when he works, he does not feel free either. Actually, Marx (1844, para. 21) gives a statement that is even more radical, ‘the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself’. He denies himself. With this in mind, it can be concluded that a man can feel free and act freely only during his leisure time while performing his basic needs, which brings us back to the statement provided from the very beginning.
Thirdly, labour not only estranges a man from his products and the tasks that he performs daily – it also makes him alien to his own self by forcing to be engaged in the productive activity he would hardly choose voluntarily. Marx calls it a step away from a species being or a conscious being. One of the major differences between a species being and an animal is activities they are engaged in and the reasons why they do this.
The man’s life activity is influenced and determined by his own will and consciousness. Animals’ activity, on the contrary, is dictated by nature and basic instincts. Animals can produce, for example, nests; but the things they produce and their actions are all aimed to meet only their basic physical need, and nothing more. People can produce whatever they want; they are guided by will, not only their physical needs. However, estranged labour makes people’s activity and their species-life nothing more than ‘a means of his physical existence’, and thereby it deprives them of one of the most important advantages they have over animals (Marx 1844, para. 33). In other words, they deny themselves and retreat from their own species being.
Finally, the fourth and the last manifestation of alienation is that labour deprives workers of normal relationships with other human beings and the community. As Marx (1844, para. 36) says, when an individual ‘confront himself, he also confronts other men’, so the sociologist connects this aspect with the previous one. Indeed, the man’s attitude towards himself, his labour and the products of his labour inevitably affect his attitude and relationships with others.
Since a worker is alienated from the man’s essence as such, he lacks the ability to interact with people. Moreover, he does not need others anymore, and capitalism and its requirements that an individual is forced to meet are responsible for that. First of all, an individual sees himself as a worker, which is why all other people and society are perceived from the same perspective, ‘with the standard and the situation in which he as a worker finds himself’ (Marx 1844, para. 39).
In his Comments on James Mill, as well as in several other subsequent works, Marx (1932) discussed how non-alienated labour would look like. Naturally, this concept is the opposite of alienated labour. It is defined as the conscious life activity that helps individuals to not only meet their basic needs but also develop their potential, collaborate with others and comprehend their species being or humanity (Solomon & Sherman 2008). Hence, non-alienated labour from Marx’s perspective should be something that gives a person the identity, not takes it away. All of this, in its turn, can be achieved if only a worker can control his workplace and the objects he produces. Besides, people should ‘work not in the way domesticated animals or robots work’, they should voluntarily choose their professions (Bramann n.d., para. 7).
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Nevertheless, there is a possibility that Marx may have overemphasized the impact that labour has on the workers. Admittedly, a lot of his arguments are justified and make sense, and labour still may be alienated under capitalism to some extent, but perhaps this problem is not so acute as Marx believed. Besides, the sociologist was talking about labour in the context of a particular period of time and certain historical events.
Even though his theory is true for the nineteenth century, it may be absolutely irrelevant for the present-day society. The nineteenth century was characterized by the overexploitation of workers and unacceptable working conditions people existed in. The working days usually lasted for ten or even twelve hours, nobody was concerned about the workplace safety, the salaries were extremely low, women and children were forced to work as much as men to be able to earn for a living (Bramann n.d., para. 14). Evidently, people were deprived of education and any self-development. Hence, the capitalism in that time ‘may have been rather brutal’ (Bramann n.d., para. 14).
However, the times have changed. The salaries are higher, the working conditions are better, employees are provided with numerous benefits. During the nineteenth century, people could hardly afford to buy the objects they produced, and now workers consume and own a lot of material goods, probably, much more than people of the upper classes had at that time.
However, many aspects of Marx’s theory are still relevant nowadays. First of all, while the working conditions, in general, are better, cheap labor and the exploitation of workers still exist invisibly to us, and not only in low-wage countries but even in well-developed ones. Besides, even now, workers are usually treated like machines that are supposed to do repetitive work routinely, and managers have ‘a monopoly of control over the production process’ (Cox n.d., para. 29).
Secondly, the poverty of the working class should be considered from two different perspectives – not only in absolute but also in relative terms (Bramann n.d., para. 16). The money a worker makes, the goods he can buy for that money, the kind of car he can afford and so on – all of these are the aspects seen from the perspective of absolute terms. These conditions without any doubts have significantly developed since the nineteenth century. However, considering the situation in relative terms (how much a regular employee makes if compared with the capital owner’s revenue), it can be concluded that the situation now is even worse that back in those days.
If a manager in the nineteenth century got the revenue that was approximately fifty times higher than the wage of an average employee working for him, nowadays they make hundreds of times more, and the difference between those numbers is constantly increasing. Hence, the central paradigm remains relevant in the present-day society: the rich become richer while ordinary employees are happy to work under more or less good working conditions since it has been even worse in the recent past. In additions, ‘the imbalance of wealth usually translates into an imbalance of political power’, which is why the majority of capitalist countries have a too long way to democracy because their policies are usually determined by wealth and powerful elite rather than by people (Bramann n.d., para. 16).
Finally, Marx’s concept of non-alienated labour is almost unreachable. In modern industry, people do not always work on themselves. Many of them are employed in factories or companies with hierarchical structure and work under the direction of managers and supervisors. Therefore, they can not control all means of production like the building, the land, equipment, materials and so forth. Naturally, they also can not possess the objects they produce. And from Marx’s perspective, that can be considered as alienation of workers from the products of their work.
To conclude, Marx’s concept of alienation is one of the most useful and famous theories the sociologist has come up with. It has influenced many of his works, both the earliest and the later ones, as well as the works of other philosophers of that time. Nevertheless, there is an opinion that Marx may have overemphasized the impact that labour has on the workers and society as such. Especially nowadays, when the working conditions for employees are much better than in the nineteenth century, many of the alienation theory aspects are not relevant anymore. However, many of them still are, and the central paradigm remains unchangeable: the rich become more and more dominant, and the distance between them and the poor is steadily increasing.
Bramann, J n.d., Marx: Capitalism and Alienation. Web.
Cox, J n.d., An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation. Web.
Jiang, L 2012, ‘Several Thoughts on Alienated Labor Theory by Marx’, Asian Social Science, vol. 8, no. 7, pp. 100-103. Web.
Marx, K 1932, Comments on James Mill, Éléments D’économie Politique. Web.
Marx, K 1844, Estranged Labor: First Manuscript of Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Web.
Solomon, R & Sherman, D 2008, The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, United Kingdom. Web.