In Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx aims to introduce the concept of ‘estranged labour’ and provide an expansive explanation of how it is interlinked with the concept of alienation, private property, monetary system, and the political economy. In his text, he introduces the four distinct kinds of alienation, that is, alienation of the worker from the product, from the production activity, from self and from other men. He explains their origin and how they fall under the overarching domain of political economy.
In this paper, I will summarize the text of Karl Marx, throw light on the key arguments put forward by him, and include a critical review of the text, comprising of my reflections and scholarly critique.
In the paper, Marx describes how the political economy forms the basis for the commodification of the workers. Commodification essentially implies the transformation of objects, ideas, or cultural elements into a commodity, to facilitate their entry into the market for sale. He states that the aftermath of this commodification is the demise of the worker in a proportion inverse to his labour. This is the “actual economic fact” that he proceeds from, for building his argument. He states that the monopolization of the society has led to the accumulation of wealth in a few hands which has further facilitated the division of the whole society into two classes- “property owners and property-less workers” (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
The more a worker produces, the lesser his value becomes. His value diminishes to such an extent that the worth of the commodity becomes more than the worth of the worker, that is, the commodity that the worker produces overpowers him and gains more value. In hierarchical terms, the commodities produced by the worker are placed higher than the worker himself. Therefore, this signifies that the result of labour is not simply the production of commodities but also the production of the worker as a commodity. This commodification of labour forms the basis of alienation or estrangement. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
The first form of alienation is that of man from the product of his labour. This alienation is a by-product of the objectification of labour. The realization of this objectification by the worker leads to a sense of loss of reality which further translates into objectification itself. The nature of this objectification can be labelled as dual and ironic. This happens because the worker becomes more bound to the object he produces but is also simultaneously alienated from it. The more a worker produces, the stronger his outer world becomes, and the weaker his inner world becomes. His increase in productive capacity leads to a decline in his resources and well-being. The life he provides to his commodities becomes overbearing and in turn, puts his life in danger. The appropriation of these commodities directly leads to alienation of man from his products. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
In order to further substantiate his point, Marx draws a parallel with religion to explain that, “whatever the product of labour is, he is not.” (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
He also talks about the relation of the labour with the external world, that is, ‘nature,’ and how the labour of the worker is manifested on this sensuous nature. Nature provides mainly two functions that serve as a means of life. The first being the provision of objects to work on and the second being resources to ensure the physical sustenance. Both of these are interlinked and the degree of their interlinking allows us to understand the extent to which the worker is experiencing bondage. In the case of the fall of a worker, a rise in capital and the product would immediately follow. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
The second form of alienation Marx explained was the alienation of man from the activity of production itself. According to him, this form of alienation is concealed by the political economy. The worker puts in labour for the production of commodities, however, the externality of this labour takes a toll on his physical and mental health. Marx also talks about the compulsion involved in all labour since the aim of labour is not to satisfy needs but simply serve as a means to satisfy the needs that are external to the worker. Moreover, the labour put in by the worker does not belong to the worker himself, but to the capitalist. The result of alienation from the labour is a situation wherein the worker only faces adversities and suffering whereas the capitalist increasingly acquires more wealth. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
The third form of alienation that Marx mentions is the alienation of man from himself. Under this, he mentions the universality of man or his existence as a universal being, that is manifested in reality due to his organic relationship with nature. He demonstrates through his text how the alienation of labour further leads to alienation of man from himself and his individual life. This alienation reduces the purpose of life and reconstructs it to serve as the meaning of life itself. Therefore, the life of a worker becomes the reason for his life. He also mentions how the alienation of labour has led to man simply becoming a servant to his labour, thereby, converting man into a conscious being performing productive activities for his survival and existence. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
Objectification and commodification of man result in the loss of the universality of man’s actions and duplication of it. This loss of identity places man and animal at the same level and further contributes to the last form of alienation that is of man to man. The estrangement of man from self implies the estrangement of man from other of his kind. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
Marx states how man (worker) gains a sense of self and understanding in relation to the men around him. In a case where man is alienated from himself to such an extent that his labour becomes hostile, overpowering, and alien, the same relationship is mirrored and reflected in man’s relationship with other men. Therefore, highlighting the externality of his labour and product. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
Through the explanation of these forms of alienation, Marx concludes that private property is, thereby, a result of estrangement of labour, not a source. He also states how private property then becomes a means or way through which labour undergoes alienation. These two factors about private property, as a result, and means for alienation, can only be understood at the “culmination of the development of private property” (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
In conclusion, Marx states two main points indicating the result of his argument. Firstly, Marx states how the political economy in its essence, serves the institution of private property and takes away from the workers or the property-less individuals in society. Under this, he also puts forward the idea of equating wages and private property of workers since the labour put by them acts as a servant to the wage. In the event of “forcing up of wages”, equality of workers can be achieved. Moreover, in the event of “equality of wages” equality amongst the members of the society can be achieved since the relationship with labour is a representation of the relationship between all men. Therefore, the entire society gets transformed into an “abstract capitalist” wherein labour, wages, and private property are intertwined to such an extent that the fall of one implies the fall of the others. Secondly, Marx talks about the emancipation or freedom of the workers in society from the shackles of private property. He articulates how the freedom of workers would directly result in the freedom of the entire society because the rise in commodification under the capitalist society has divided the people into two distinct, exclusive, and rigid categories of- property owners and property-less. As a result, the emancipation of workers implicates the emancipation of society. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
In his paper, Marx makes sharp and clear arguments that initially introduce the concepts of political economy, alienation, labour, and private property and through the course of his text, draw linkages and connections between all of these concepts.
The first key argument that he brings to light is the way he has structured his entire argument. He proceeds from what he considers to be an “actual economic fact” unlike the political economist that assumes what is meant to be deduced. According to Marx, the increasing value of objects directly leads to a fall in the value of the workers. Therefore, an inverse relationship exists between workers and the commodities they produce. The more a worker produces, the more power he loses in himself and the more power he gives to the commodities. Therefore, the worker becomes subordinate to his own creation. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
Then Marx moves on to explain the four forms of alienation or estrangement of labour in the capitalist society. He mentions them in a gradual order wherein the starting point is the economic fact that leads to the alienation of man from his product which contains the alienation of man from his production activity, which ultimately reflects the alienation of man from self and from others.
Under alienation of man from his product, Marx explains how the product or commodities a worker produces gain power over the worker and this relationship is then mirrored with the “sensuous external world.” He talks about how nature and his product, turn around to control and overpower him. For alienation of man from his production activity, Marx states how the act of production itself has become alien for the worker since the only outcome out of this act is survival for a life that involves more suffering and injustices. Alienation of man from self originates out of the two preceding forms of alienation. Man becomes alien towards his own body and the purpose of life is reduced. Under this, man is separated from his spiritual self and natural self. Lastly, Marx talks about the alienation of man from other men that is a direct consequence of the alienation of man from self. The inability of man to identify with himself, his labour and product ultimately lead to man being unable to identify with other of his kind. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)
The common characteristic in his writing is the continuous reference and connections he draws to God and religion to exemplify his arguments. He draws an analogy stating that just like man puts so much into religion that he longer retains anything, similarly the entirety of the commodity that a worker produces results in a loss of that entirety for the worker. The second analogy he puts forth is that of the spontaneity of religious activity and how it is similar to the spontaneity of productive activity of the worker- both external and alien to man. Lastly, he talks about the owner of the commodities man produces and questions whether the owner of his product is God or a member of his species.
We can also identify the links he makes with nature and how he makes a sharp distinction between man’s conscious activity and the life-activity of animals.
Marx concludes by connecting the institution of private property as a result of alienated labour that must be emancipated for the freedom of the entire society. He states that the political economy serves private property by taking away from the worker, his product, and labour. The division of the society into two classes facilitates the alienation of man and makes him subordinate to his product and ultimately, the capitalists.
Due to the worldwide reach of Marxist ideas and philosophy, Marx has been one of the most popular historical figures. Owing to his popularity, the work produced by him has been reviewed by different sections of the society and placed within different frameworks and contexts.
One journal that reviewed this text of Marx, claimed him to be an angry man that diverted his anger to construct a “gigantic scientific prophetic system” that is almost impossible to recreate. By this, the journal refers to his ability to deduce and generalize phenomenon under the category of alienation and estrangement of labour that is pertinent as a harsh reality in today’s society. (Economica, 1959)
His work has also been reviewed and critiqued in the Indian context wherein Pavitharan analyses this text and explains how the different forms of alienation depict a hierarchy and at its core contain alienation in the economic sense. He also talks about how this text indicates the beginning of his ideas about communism. Pavitharan gives a reference to his later works and how Marx mentions that dis-alienation will come with the advent of communism. (Pavitharan, 2009)
A work done by Philip J. Kain analyses the “dialectic method” used by Marx. He states that his text depicts three parallel processes wherein the
historical development in the categories representative of the “actual concrete” in combination with the methodological categorization and connection between the categories lead to the “development of actual concrete.” (Kain, 1980)
Llorente also contributes significantly to analyzing Marxist ideas by drawing a comparison between his work and that of Engels by highlighting their differences in the perception of the universal class. In his text, Marx states that freedom of the labour class would directly imply the freedom of the society as a whole since the workers (proletariats) aim for specific interests that are general in nature. Thus, when workers fight for their cause, they fight for the causes of the entire society as well. On the other hand, Engles states how stratification in society makes a way for “non-class domination, oppression, and exploitation.” (Llorente, 2013)
The main argument of the entire paper is how man, as a worker, creates commodities that overpower him. Thus, man produces commodities that lead to his own commodification. The value of man has diminished to such an extent that man has become subordinate to his own products.
Man, the universal species, has been subjugated under the dominant forces of the political economy and is being made to provide for other of his kind. The result of man’s subjugation is a value or price tag being put on every life and being sold under the demands of the market. The increasing capitalist desires have led to an increase in the avarice of the individuals due to which a price has been put on every single object.
This can be linked with the monsters of capitalism, that is, the assembly line. Under this system, workers work for several hours without significant breaks for food, water, and recreation. This continuous work strains the human body and mind and leads to their suffering. An example of this would be the Maruti assembly line wherein the workers get a break of 30 minutes in the 8 hours they work. This showcases how much more value is attached to the commodities as compared to human life. The importance of products is so much more, that the capitalist market is willing to sacrifice human lives for it.
This argument of Marx about the devaluation of a worker with the increase in the value of the commodity he produces can also be connected to the ideas of Durkheim. Durkheim states that “human beings are dominated by the forces of their own creation” In his text, Marx is implying that the creation of a worker, that is, his product, turns to overpower him and confront him as an alien object.
This text is also a reflection of other Marxist ideas about religion and the collective consciousness of the workers. Marx draws several comparisons to religion in order to explain the alienation of man, which brings forward his idea about “religion being the opium of the masses.” He states how man tends to become lost in God and religion to an extent where he is separated from the entire concept of religion itself. Marx also talks about the emancipation of the workers which ultimately leads to the emancipation of the entire society. This highlights his ideas about unity within the workers and how they have “nothing to lose but their chains.” Therefore, this text can be seen as a thread connecting several Marxist ideas.
In his text, Marx starts his argument by stating and describing the existence of two classes within society. By the end of his text, the links he creates between political economy, private property, and alienation serve as an explanation for this division. The way in which the last point of the text serves to explain the first point makes the text feel compact and holistic.
To conclude, this text by Karl Marx serves as the foundation for the ideas that later originated about capitalism and its shortcomings. His ideas continue to inspire other sociologists, economists, and philosophers worldwide. Through this text, Marx makes certain arguments and deductions about the political economy that allow us to understand our place in the society and whether we fall into the class of property-owners or property-less workers.
Economica, 26(104), new series, 379-379. (1959). doi:10.2307/2550890
Kain, P. (1980). Marx’s Dialectic Method. History and Theory, 19(3), 294-312. doi:10.2307/2504546
LLORENTE, R. (2013). Marx’s Concept of “Universal Class”: A Rehabilitation. Science & Society, 77(4), 536-560. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24584620
Longhofer, W., & Winchester, D. (2016). Social Theory Re-Wired (pp. 7-12). [Erscheinungsort nicht ermittelbar]: Taylor and Francis.
Pavithran, K. (2009). ‘ALIENATION’ AND THE HUMANIST SIGNIFICANCE OF MARXISM: A CRITICAL APPRECIATION. The Indian Journal of Political Science, 70(1), 175-184. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41856505