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some rambling thoughts on marx’s concept of alienation

July 17, 2012

One of the practical as well as philosophical issues I have with the capitalist mode of production is the potential exploitation inherent in the system itself, which in its most extreme (and therefore visible) forms can be found in things like prison labour and sweatshops, but according to Marx’s labour theory of value is a characteristic of all forms of wage labour under capitalism. In the Marxist sense, at least, exploitation refers to the worker’s lack of ownership and/or distributive control over the surplus created by their labour. (That’s why Marx defined slavery, feudalism, and capitalism as exploitative systems of production, i.e., in each, the producers/workers have no ownership and/or distributive control over the surplus created by their labour). In this sense, exploitation is an inherent part of the capitalist mode of production, which in turn, ties into Marx’s theory of alienation. It’s rather complicated, and I don’t fully understand everything Marx wrote on the subject as much of it is very abstract, but in short, exploitation is the idea that the capitalist profits far more from a worker’s labour than the worker does, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s voluntary or not. Moreover, this type of social relationship ultimate debases labour and impedes our positive development as a species.

Adam Smith et al. assumed that labour creates wealth (surplus value). But according to Marx, in a capitalist system, labour itself becomes a commodity, an object that’s bought and sold on the market. Moreover, due to private ownership of the means of production, the product of the worker’s labour doesn’t legally belong to them (alienation), nor does the surplus value their labour creates (unpaid labour), which is kept by the capitalist. Consequently, the product of the worker’s labour becomes a commodity that’s divorced from the labour expended on its production, thereby obscuring the social relationship between producer and consumer (commodity fetishism). Furthermore, the employer has the ability to increase their profit exponentially by reinvesting the surplus value extracted from the worker’s labour into their company while the labourer is forced to spend their (more often than not) meager wages on the necessities of life such as food, clothing, shelter, etc.

For Marx, our ability to produce things, especially our means of subsistence, is what sets us apart from other animals. In his view, this ability to produce objects is a part of our essence as a human being. Put another way, Marx viewed human beings as productive creatures that, in the words of Jonathan Wolff, “are able to create according to our will and consciousness in a very elaborate way.” But, as Wolff continues, “workers under capitalism, Marx thinks, very rarely have the opportunity to express these powers. So, Marx says, from a human being, the worker is reduced to an abstract activity and a stomach. So rather than being a human being able to express our essence, we are like little machines ourselves.” And I think understanding this point of view is integral to understanding an important part of Marx’s critique of production under the capitalist system, which he argues not only estranges and alienates the worker’s relationship to the products of their labour, but estranges and alienates the worker’s relationship to the act of production itself.

As Marx wrote in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, under the capitalist system of production, the worker’s labour becomes “external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.” As a consequence, the worker “only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor.” And when viewed from this perspective, it may become easier to understand why Marx saw labour within the context of capitalism as something debasing, particularly for the worker, and why it’s ultimately an impediment to achieving self-realization as a species in the sense of resolving “the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species” that’s characterized by the “positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement.”

From an ethical standpoint, this inherently disparate relationship between capital and labour reminds me of a line from a letter written by Abigail Adams in the spring of 1776 to her husband: “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow-creatures of theirs [referring to slave-holding Virginians]. Of this I am certain, that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principle of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.” And I think the same sentiment can easily be applied to capital in relation to the wage labourer, at least in the sense of how the latter is coerced under the capitalist mode of production to surrender their labour-power to the former in exchange for their means of subsistence, which is always less than what they actually produces, as well as all rights over the product of their labour.

In essence, from one point of view, both slavery and wage labour can be seen to infringe upon individual autonomy in their respective ways, with former more obviously so, but the latter no less potentially oppressive from the standpoint of labour. As Frederick Engels wrote in 1847, “The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly. The individual slave, property of one master, is assured an existence, however miserable it may be, because of the master’s interest. The individual proletarian, property as it were of the entire bourgeois class which buys his labor only when someone has need of it, has no secure existence.” Moreover, the logic of the system, via what Marx termed the ‘coercive laws of competition,’ forces the hand of capital to exploit labour as much as they can; and at the same time, labour is coerced into the position of working for a wage and fighting for gains that capital quickly counter in an endless battle punctuated by regular economic crises (these days better known as the ‘business cycle’), creating class antagonisms between capital and labour.

Hence much of what’s historically been labelled as Marxism and/or socialism has been a search for practical as well as philosophical resolutions to these issues, which for me isn’t so much about the equality of wealth or outcomes as it is the de-privatization (i.e., socialization) of opportunity and the weakening of class antagonisms and hierarchies arising out of social relations unique to capitalism and other predominately exploitative systems. As Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy, “Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” And Marx’s focus, along with socialist movements in general, is in attempting to answer the question of how to liberate society from suffering and alienation by changing the material conditions that support it. In the words of Erich Fromm, “[Marx’s] concept of socialism is the emancipation from alienation, the return of man to himself, his self-realization,” a goal that’s ultimately achievable via “the liberation of man from a kind of work which destroys his individuality, which transforms him into a thing, and which makes him into the slave of things.”

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