What does Marx mean by ‘alienation’? Is he right to maintain that alienation is a necessary feature of the workers’ life under capitalism?
The idea of alienation is understood in a broader sense to mean the condition of a person who experiences life as empty and meaningless or perceives themself as worthless. This, in turn, creates an unnatural separation or inhibited appropriation of oneself. Capitalism can be defined as an economic system in which industry is controlled by private owners for the generation of profit rather than the state. I will argue that alienation, as defined by Marx, prevents self-expression and, therefore, self-recognition for the workers under capitalism since the dawn of the 19th century. In order to understand Marx’s definition, we first need to look at the work of Hegel. Hegel understood that “self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged [or recognised]” (Hegel, 1977, §178). For Hegel, the process of self-consciousness is when the human being externalises itself, then confronts its being to recognise itself and overcome alienation. Marx’s understanding of alienation draws from Hegel’s, agreeing in effect, that individuals lack a conscious self when estranged. However, Marx builds on the concept of alienation within the 19th-century industrialised society, consequently rejecting Hegel’s idea that we have overcome alienation. He adds that the present capitalist society is characterised by a deep structural form of alienation and that labour productivity has resulted in people’s lives becoming obscured.
Estrangement, as a feature under capitalism, can be understood as necessary; the workers contribute to an economic system that is the source of their oppression. This oppression happens when the product of the worker’s labour ultimately dominates them, resulting in entrapment within said labour. To understand the domination of the product, we turn to Marx’s alienation approach from the product of labour. “And so much is the worker’s relation to the object one of estrangement instead of appropriation that the more objects he produces the less he can possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, capital” (Marx, 1844, pp. 71). Marx attempts to establish that humans have the capacity to externalise themselves in the objects they produce. They can identify and recognise themselves in the products of their creation. However, due to the nature of the 19th-century capitalist society, this process of self-objectification is unachievable for the workers. They are controlled to produce what the capitalists want instead of something that reflects their individual aims. Therefore, the product the worker creates is an alien power which ultimately dominates them. I understand this concept to create a loop that forces workers to remain alienated. The product of labour overpowers the workers, which in turn controls what the workers will continue to make. This results in more dominating products that keep the workers alienated under capitalism. Hence, I argue that Marx is right in recognising alienation as a necessary feature of the worker’s life as they are trapped within this self-oppressed society. Arguably, the only way to escape the cycle of alienation is to adapt to society, so labour is an expression of the worker, for example, by adopting a communist mode of government.
After reading Marx’s ideas on alienation, one could ask: why are so many people living in this state of alienation and are seemingly oblivious to it or just accepting it? One answer to this is ideology. This concept is usually defined as a worldview that masks or distorts reality; ideology is a false consciousness or falsehood. This results in working towards domination and exploitation. People continue to live and work under hostile conditions without being able to see that a different and potentially better organisation of society is both possible and desirable. This mindset would therefore help to fuel the oppression and alienation of the worker as they fail to recognize a better alternative way of living. Instead, they accept their alienated relationship with their labour and allow their product to dominate them. With a worldview of domination, there seems to be a lack of escape for the workers while still living in a capitalist economic system. Therefore, I understand there to be a necessary presence of alienation in the worker’s life.
I claim that the arguments established so far explain why Marx is right in saying that alienation is a necessary feature of the worker’s life under capitalism. However, to argue if he can maintain this idea, we must present alienation within the 21st-century societal structure. I argue that the fashion industry offers a good example of how alienation remains present in workers’ lives. 21st-century trends have led to consumers wanting fast fashion, and these products are produced in factories where the condition for workers is similar to those of the 19th century. Hence, workers continue to feel alienated from their labour, products and species-being as they are still unable to express or identify themselves in their work. Even in the 21st century, capitalism continues to dictate and control the workers. This is one example of lots of industries within the capital that treat their workforce in a similar way. An article from the Midnight Media Musings regarding alienation in the 21st century states: “the problem persisted into the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly in low autonomy jobs. Today factors such as division of labour and the displacement of certain skills contribute to alienation despite the automation of manual labour.” (Zaykova, 2015). This supports Marx’s claim that his ideas of alienation maintain and continue to be relevant.
On the contrary, employers taking a greater interest in employee welfare could allow workers to labour under a capitalist system and feel less alienated. The Midnight Media Musings article presented the work of Blunter as an example. He proposed that “greater automation in work would lead to a decline of alienation as there would be less dull, routine work and people could concentrate on more interesting and meaningful tasks” (Zaykova, 2015). A recent example that demonstrates this could be when manufacturer Henry Ford realised that paying his workers good wages would generate demand for the cars he produced. His workers, therefore, suffered less exploitation and gained more self-worth.
There is a possibility for the workers within the capitalist system to work and have a reduced feeling of alienation as more opportunities arise through technology and increased employee welfare. However, without a total change in the economic system, the workers will remain alienated from their own activity and product of labour, as the capital acts as a dominant force that prevents the self-expression and recognition of the workers. I agree that alienation was and remains to be a necessary feature of the worker’s life under capitalism; the only escape is a change in the whole society, where private property is removed.
by Amelia Wood
Hegel, G.W.F., Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 111 (§178)
Marx, K, ‘From the Paris Notebooks (1844).’ In Early Political Writings, ed. J. O’Malley (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 71
Zaykova, A, (2015) Alienation in the 21st century: the relationship between work and technology. Available at: https://midnightmediamusings.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/alienation-in-the-21st-century-the-relationship-between-work-and-technology/