Strangers to Ourselves: Marx’s Theory of Alienation
The current struggle between social classes is not one that exists solely in the present. In fact, it is a culmination of decades of history with academic experts and sociologists on both sides of the spectrum, framing their own hypotheses and battling each other’s, only to create a divided world that might seem organized on the surface but is chaotic at its very core. Marx’s “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” discuss this industrial world and critique the dimensions of its political economy concerning human labour driven by the capitalist system. This article sheds light on the key arguments posed by Karl Marx in his theories of alienation and labour. It focuses on Marx’s theory of alienation and its four main aspects. It also discusses how Marxist ideals have been reproduced over time in the works of other sociologists and provides reflections on the concerns regarding capitalism.
The Manuscripts: A Summary
At the very outset, Marx’s ideas can be clearly described as radical, especially for a time where industrialization and urbanization were modern concepts, introduced without political deliberation. He discusses uncomfortable themes, like the commodification of workers and how they have been reduced to nothing but objects. To explain how they have been dehumanized, he examines the notion of estranged labour, a workforce that is distanced from not only the world but also itself. A significant topic that he explores is alienation, but he interprets the term in his own ways. Alienation, for Marx, is how the system manages to separate the worker from the very act of working and how eventually, the worker begins to underestimate the power he holds over the society and sees himself as someone who exists outside of his labour. Marx discusses four different aspects of alienation.
Marx discusses four different aspects of alienation.
First, he discusses the separation of the worker from the product of his labour. The commodity produced is a result of his labour, yet it acts as something alien to him, because it holds power over him. It enables him to not only exist as a worker but is also the means for his subsistence. Next, he explores the relationship between the worker and the act of production. Since capitalists design, control and supervise the very process of production, the worker has little to no interest in his work. Most of the time, he is miserable and constrained, and the only times he feels free is when engaging in absolutely primal activities, such as eating or drinking. This means that the act of working becomes hostile in itself and he tries to separate himself from it. After this, Marx lays down the idea of social alienation and how the system takes away from man, the very quality that makes him one. The worker is enslaved to his work and is denied creative expression, natural appreciation, or beauty. He is reduced to displaying behaviour that is only based on immediate physical needs and begins to identify as only a worker, thus stripping himself off his identity as part of his species. Lastly, the manuscripts discuss estrangement from man to man. The capitalists force the workers into a competition, where one sees others just as he sees himself, as a worker and not a companion. Marx concludes by analyzing how private property is a consequence of alienated labour, and urges the emancipation of workers from the very system of capitalism.
Since Marx’s theories of alienation and estranged labour reflect what is wrong with the ideas that political economists share, he attempts to justify how their ideas fail to study the relationship between the worker and the means of production. He discusses the worker’s estrangement from the product and the act of production to explain how the process acts as a false illusion of choice, manipulating them into thinking that what they are doing is of their own will when the essence of their work is based on exploitation. By saying that “the more value he creates, the more unworthy he becomes”, Marx attempts to explain why working under such conditions becomes an unintended act of coercion because no matter what one tries to do, the nature of work is such that it will unquestionably dehumanize the workers.
Marx argues that even though it may seem otherwise, private property ownership is not the root of alienated labour. It is a consequence, as are all other capitalist relationships. The relationship between the worker and the labour is the base, and all other associations including the one between the capitalist and the worker as well as between the owner and the labour, are all built on this base. And because the base in itself is rooted in exploitation, so are all other relationships.
Marx implies that private property and wages are identical, even though they are owned by opposing forces. Since they both result from estrangement and alienated labour, reducing or increasing any of the two is futile, because it works on bettering the consequence and not the action itself. This is precisely why striving for higher wages might improve the situation, yet it does not solve the core issue of alienation. Thus, Marx argues that the whole system needs to be dismantled, and workers need to unite to abolish any private property. The abolition of private property and wages will lead to the emancipation of workers and will finally bring a much-needed uprising.
Marx knew that to bring reform, one needs to first bring revolution.
Marx’s ideas have been reproduced in contemporary times, and his works have inspired several other sociologists to study class differences. Marx believed that the fundamental order of a society is based on how it satisfies its material needs, and his manuscripts elaborate on how this historical materialism is the basis of differences between the social classes. They state that eliminating this system is the way to get rid of exploitation, however, they fail to acknowledge other significant determinants of these differences, such as ethnicity, race and gender, which encompass most of human society and culture. While the manuscripts are centered around materialist views, it becomes bothersome when they refuse to explicitly state or even subtly imply that it is not only the economic infrastructure that decides social order. Many sociologists that discuss capitalism in their works have been impacted by Marxist ideals. However, these researchers possess varying views on how capitalism exploits the general public and they offer different opinions on how to correct it.
For instance, Durkheim was also interested in how industrialization shaped modern society, yet his works focus on social norms and regulating behaviour. Marx’s Alienation and Durkheim’s Theory of Anomie, which states that broad social conditions influence deviant behaviour (Bernburg, 2019) are often compared for their similarities, especially considering how his works had heavy Marxian influences. Both are consequences of industrialization, yet Durkheim’s views were not centered solely around materialism, unlike Marx. In later writings, Engels, who influenced a chunk of Marx’s views, says that Marxism focuses on economic history, yet it never states that what is economical is the only determinant of social order (Swingewood, 1998).
Marx’s early visions of communism at the end of the manuscript originate from his dialectic views that Hegel influenced. He believed that the way to resolve contradictions was through struggle (Adams & Sydie, 2001). Thus, he strived for class consciousness, urging workers to unite and dismantle the system of exploitation. He wanted to free the workers, and while he knew the bourgeoise would prevent it from happening, it was needed to bring about social reform. However, Marx had a very abstract idea of how this will take place. Even though his words have a scientific basis, and he does provide a solution to capitalist exploitation, he never mentions the implications of these solutions. And now, especially in contemporary times when the functioning of the economic infrastructure has become much more complex, Marx’s solutions seem unrealistic and almost utopian.
The concerns under capitalism were not new concepts, in fact, most of exploitatory practices such as introducing surplus value existed in feudal systems. However, it increased manifold under capitalism and Marx wanted to associate the basic source of a product’s value with the intensity of labour needed to produce it (Ritzer, 2012). In the manuscript, Marx criticizes the idea that exploitation is inevitable under capitalism and offers this labor theory of value as a solution in his later works. However, such ideas have been tried and have not succeeded. At one time, almost one-third of the world’s population lived in states inspired by Marxist ideas, yet they have become capitalist (Ritzer, 2012).
Now, the inefficient application of Marxist ideals is not a perfectly valid criticism, yet it might serve as evidence for what we fear. Are these principles only effective in theory? Contemporary society has a long way to go in accepting these ideas, let alone applying them in the real world. However, one cannot deny Marx’s contribution to the systematic analysis of capitalism. And no matter how radical it seems, it does prove one thing, change could come in the most unexpected ways.
Adams, B. N., & Sydie, R. A. (2002). Radical Anticapitalism. In Sociological theory (pp.
Bernburg, J. G. (2019). Anomie Theory. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice (pp. 3–5). Oxford University Press. Retrieved fromhttps://www.researchgate.net/publication/332057713_Anomie_Theory_Oxford_Resear ch_Encyclopedia_of_Criminology_and_Criminal_Justice
Ritzer, G. (2012). Karl Marx. In Sociological theory (8th ed., pp. 71–75). McGraw-Hill. Retrieved from https://ccsuniversity.ac.in/bridge-library/pdf/Sociological_Theory%20Ritzer.pdf
Swingewood A. (1998) Theorising Culture: Marxism. In: Cultural Theory and the Problem of Modernity. Palgrave, London. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-26830-6_1