Monday, March 12, 2007

The Roots of Alienation

An aspect of Marxism which I have not yet covered in this series is Marx’s theory of alienation. This is not because it is not important - on the contrary it is central to the whole of Marxism – but because, like dialectics which I shall tackle next, it can seem ‘philosophical’ and ‘difficult’, although as I will try to show, it relates directly to all our everyday experience.

One part of the difficulty in explaining Marx’s concept of alienation accurately is that the word ‘alienation’ has a well established usage in everyday language, where it means feeling ‘fed up’, ‘outcast’ or ‘estranged’, and that Marx’s concept , while related to the everyday meaning, is also significantly different.

Another problem is that there is a long standing philosophical usage of the term which was prevalent in Marx’s youth (particularly in the work of Hegel) and again Marx’s concept is related to this usage but also profoundly different. To this must be added the fact that many of the academic commentaries on this subject fail to understand these differences and consequently to grasp Marx’s real meaning.

Marx ‘s first and most comprehensive presentation of his theory of alienation was in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 which was one of the early works in which he worked out his ideas in relation to existing philosophical, economic and social theories.

In the existing philosophical usage man’s alienation ( I’m using the masculine language of the time) signified that he was cut off, separated from ‘God’, from ‘the true meaning of life’, or from his own ‘true nature’. For Hegel it was all three, but it was fundamentally a mental problem, a problem of our false consciousness and insufficient understanding (a problem which Hegel’s philosophy would remedy).

Marx was profoundly aware of this but he approached the matter differently. He showed that alienation was not just a ‘feeling’ or a problem of consciousness but a material and economic fact. Using the political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, he showed that under capitalism it was a fact that workers were alienated from the products of their own labour, i.e. they neither owned nor controlled the goods which they made with their own hands, but which formed a world of ‘things’ set against them and dominating them. And the harder workers worked, the more they produced, the more they increased the power of this alien, hostile world.

‘It is true’, says Marx, ‘ that labour produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity’.

But then Marx takes the analysis a further crucial step. He argues that if workers are alienated from the products of their labour this can only be because they are alienated in the act of production, in the labour process itself. ‘The product is after all but the summary of the activity of production’. What then makes labour alienated?

First, says Marx, the fact that labour is external to the worker, ‘ it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work therefore he does not affirm himself but denies himself’. It is not voluntary but forced labour and as soon as no compulsion exists ‘it is shunned like the plague.’ Above all it is the fact that the labour is not the worker’s own, but someone else’s and ‘that in it he belongs not to himself but to another’. A moment’s reflection makes clear that this is an exact description of capitalist wage labour in which the workers can survive only by selling their labour power to the employers.

Why this is so important is because labour is fundamental to being human. It is through labour that humanity makes itself and creates its history and society. The alienation of labour, therefore, means the alienation, the estrangement, of the producers from the whole material world which they produce; from their humanity , individually and collectively; from themselves and from society and also from nature since it is first and foremost through labour that humans relate to nature. Alienation thus pervades the whole of our society. Even the capitalists do not escape alienation for they too are locked into the same process; they merely constitute the conservative side of the same alienated relationship.

The theory of alienation thus contains in embryonic form the entire Marxist critique of capitalism. It shows why capitalism is a fundamentally inhumane and dehumanizing system; why it subordinates living labour to dead labour, people to profit.; why even when workers living standards rise their lives are still deformed by wage labour; why even the most intimate personal relations are so often damaged and distorted; why people, the oppressors but also the oppressed are capable of such barbaric treatment of each other; why capitalism is ultimately a system out of control even of the capitalists themselves and why, under capitalism, every human advance in production, technology and science threatens to turn against us and destroy us. The threat of nuclear annihilation, the industrial mass murder of the Nazi Holocaust, and the potential disaster of global warming are all extreme examples of a world based on alienated labour.

And although alienation is a profound philosophical concept it is also something every worker feels in his or her bones – it is the reality of their daily lives in the factory, the call center, the supermarket and the kitchen. Every strike, every trade union struggle, whether over wages, hours or conditions is, in part, a rebellion against alienated labour.

But the theory of alienation also has revolutionary implications. Neither improvements in wages and conditions, nor advances in welfare, nor any kind of parliamentary legislation can overcome alienation. Nor can any change in consciousness or attitude.Only a qualitative transformation in the relations of production, only workers’ power in society and workers’ control in the workplace can make workers masters of their own labour and thus end alienation, opening the way for the real development of humanity.
NOTE: It is impossible in the space of a column to do justice to the richness and complexity of Marx’s analysis of alienation. Interested readers are strongly ureged to consult the original source. The key text is Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 especially the section on ‘Estranged Labour’. It can be difficult but is immensely rewarding.

John Molyneux
December 2006

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