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A-Z of Marxist concepts: Alienation

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Jade McCarroll begins A-Z of Marxist concepts by looking at Karl Marx's critique of human experience under capitalism: alienaton.

One of the most recurring themes in the writings of Marx between 1844-5 is the concept of human alienationEntfremdung (estrangement). Although it is borrowed from Hegel, it is done so by Marx in a way that transcends the intrinsically humanist nature of Hegel’s philosophy. For Marx it was not in the mind, through the realisation of ‘absolute knowledge’ that freedom was to be actualised but rather in the material world, through the abolition of wage labour and the eventual overthrowing of class society. Marx conceived the development of industry in dialectical terms, that is to say that he saw the development of technology and the possibilities of material abundance that arose as a result of this as being the opening of a door towards a true human emancipation; but it’s immediate effect has been the ‘furthering of the dehumanization of man’ because of the nature of the capitalist system. In this article I only aim to give an outline of the different forms of Alienation which exist and how these impact at an individual and societal level.

We shall begin from a contemporary economic fact. The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces and the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more goods he creates. The devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation to the increase in value of the world of things. Labour does not only create goods; it also produces itself and the worker as a commodity and indeed in the same proportion as it produces goods. (Manuscripts, p. 13)

For Marx four forms of alienation exist for the modern worker:

Alienation from the products of labour, which belongs not to the individual worker but to the Capitalist. The very life of the worker is put in to creating objects which do not belong to them, in a system in which they have no control; their labour itself becomes a commodity as the objects they have produced are taken away from them and sold. In modern history, the separation of workers from the products of their labour is such that they may not even be aware of what they are producing as work places become more de-skilled and segmented.

Alienation within the act of production of the labour process, since this work is entered in to within the bounds of wage labour and is not entered in to freely to satisfy a need, but only as a means of satisfying other needs external to it, consequently work is not a fulfilling task, rather it is a necessary evil. Every aspect of the production process is owned and dictated by the capitalist, from product design and other forms of ‘intellectual labour’ to the manual labour of the worker and the product they create. The worker is treated as though they were a cog in a machine, engaging in monotonous, repetitive tasks which ‘mortifies his flesh and ruins his spirit’.

Alienation from the species being, since the essential nature of humankind lies in the ability to shape and reshape the world around us according to our needs and creative capacity; but this is denied to us through the dehumanising nature of capitalism. Marx noted that this form of alienation was also felt by the capitalist class, although in a very different way than felt by the worker, he explains:

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement, but the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power and has it in the semblance of a human existence. The class of the Proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and in reality of an inhuman existence. (The Holy Family, 1884)

Alienation of ‘(wo)man from (wo)man’, with the dehumanising nature of capitalism being generalised throughout society and workers labour being used as a commodity, rather than as a constructive socio-economic activity utilised for the betterment of society. The capitalists in the pursuit of profit provoke social conflict as workers are pitted against each other in order to try and ensure their own survival, as their share of the value of their own production shrinks.

Alienation is not just a concept for academics to mull over; it can be seen in every aspect of daily life. Whether it be the disenfranchised working class British person blaming Eastern Europeans for the lack of jobs in Britain, or the person working long hours in a mind numbing job longing for their day off and the chance to escape the drudgery and boredom of their de-skilled work environment. As such, alienated labour transforms our human essence in to a means of mere existence in which the productive forces of society and the potential capacity of human ingenuity are bound within the rigid confines of the capitalist system, and the average worker, subject to an enforced false consciousness is pitted against those in their class in the same position. Alienation can only be overcome by restoring the human elements of the labour process, this cannot and will never be achieved in a system built on exploitation and the pursuit of private gains; only by working in order to meet the needs of society and in the pursuit of fulfilling the huge potential of human endeavour and creativity which right now lies dormant and untapped, will human beings ever realise their full potential and be truly emancipated.

Jade Mccarroll is a member of the International Socialist Group at University of West of Scotland.

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