Notes on Marx’s Concept of Alienation

A.W. Frank

Sociology 331


What I want to write about today is alienation, which I understand as the core of Marx's thinking.  If the capitalist system doesn't cause alienation, then there will be no need to replace it; indeed, any attempt at revolution will fail.  And if the still over-the-horizon social system that Marx calls "scientific socialism" or "communism" does not bring back together what capitalism has set apart (alienation is, literally, to make strange between themselves or to itself), then it will fail.


The tricky thing reading Marx today is that the revolution has not happened, and communism did fail--so Marx was in some sense wrong about alienation.  But in what sense?  To say that alienation did not lead to revolution hardly means it isn't real, rather it only means that a sense of alienation either isn't so pervasive as Marx supposed, or that this sense of alienation is only one component in causing a revolution and the other components didn't occur.  And to say that communism was no more successful than capitalism in eliminating alienation doesn't mean that alienation is any less present within capitalism.  So we're back where we started: what's alienation, and how alienated are we?


The simplest way to suggest your own level of alienation is to ask yourselves the lottery question: if I won one tomorrow, what would I do?  To the extent that you would keep on with your present work, that's an indicator of low alienation.  "Thank God it's Friday" is one expression of alienation; "blue Monday" is another.  Why is alienation so closely tied to work?  Because for Marx, work is the more genuine expression of what it is to be truly human.


Like most 19th Century thinkers (e.g., Durkheim, Freud) Marx begins with the question of what separates the human from other animals; this question was taken very seriously as the necessary beginning of social theorizing.  To summarize Marx's answer:


The particularity of what Marx calls human "species being" (an odd phrase today, meaning what is unique about a given species, especially that species' ultimate potential) is the capacity to undertake activity with an imagination of how that activity will go and what its end will look like.  The lion feels hungry, sees a gazelle and goes after it, moving according to a genetic program (lions don't go to hunting school, they just know how; beavers don't "learn" to build dams, etc.).  Humans, on the other hand, have an abstract idea of how the food ought to look on the plate, and they cook in order to approximate this abstraction.  The lion hunts because survival requires it, and humans may eat this way too; but when they do, they function as fellow animals, not as humans.  To the extent that "gourmet" cooking is done to produce cuisine as an art form--regardless of nutrition--that becomes fully human.


Thus we get to Marx's famous question of what is the difference between the worst of architects (whose building falls down, is ugly, looks like a McDonalds) and the best of bees, which create this wonder of function and geometry.  His answer is that even the worst of architects proceeds according to an abstract plan, and at the end s/he looks at what was produced and compares it to that plan.  In this comparison, the architect measures not just the building but measures him or herself, because the building is the "objectification" (the turning into an object, thus rendering visible and social) of the architect's self.


A professor I had in graduate school was lecturing on this and a skeptic asked him whether, if he builds a tree house, he "is" a tree house.  The answer, for Marx, is pretty much yes:  you are what you work at, what you build, what you produce.  The reason is that people can only know themselves through the objectification of their own work, that is, by seeing the products of their labour reappear as objects in the world (again, objectification means to turn an abstract idea into a real thing, thus being able to see what it's worth, and what I'm worth for having thought of it and executed it).  The bee is what it builds too, but the bee has no possibility for seeing itself in the object of its labour.  Thus the bee will never build anything else but a hive (as incredible as that hive may be), the lion will never be more than a gazelle chaser (as athletic as that chase may be) but the architect can build, and can become, anything--and that's the core of distinct, human species being.


Take a minute to let this sink in, because it means something important in your life and mine.  It means that in writing this, I'm objectifying myself as a professor, and as I read it back at some future time, I see myself:  what I am capable of "realizing" (literally, making real) in my labour is what I am.  The paper you write is not just "getting a grade" (to think that is to be deep in alienation); it's the objectification of your species being.  Now Marx is mostly concerned with how the conditions of our work prevent us from realizing our most human species being, but recognize there is also an element of profound personal responsibility being expressed here.  This is one aspect of what is called Marx's "humanism."  But I get ahead of the story.


You should now be able to appreciate what underpins Marx’s famous objection that under capitalist-imposed conditions of work, the human feels most free in animal activities (eating, sleeping, procreating) and least free in what is distinctly human, working.  To the extent that we work in order to meet the physical needs of survival, that work is not distinctly human.  When work is liberated from the constraint of survival (i.e., after you've won the lottery), then it becomes what Marx calls "free labour."  This phrase is something of a joke for Marx, since it's also the legal phrase describing the "right" of the labourer to enter into a contract to sell his/her labour to the capitalist for wages.  Marx regarded the capitalist legalistic notion of free labour as a farce, since the worker's only alternative was to starve; some freedom!  Truly free labour, for Marx, begins when the "animal" requirement of survival have been fulfilled.  In the very little Marx wrote about the future communist state, people would fulfill their "survival" labour in the morning and then spend the rest of the day in free labour.  (Note that Marx is clear that this only becomes possible after capitalism has enhanced the "means of production" to a level where it isn't necessary for all the people to work all the time in order to survive comfortably.  What is necessary is that everyone do their share of the work, which isn't happening in capitalism.  Thus we have a Marxist apology for why third-world experiments in Marxism have been doomed to failure.  Only in advanced capitalist countries could a version of communism hope to succeed.)


But even the fulfillment of basic survival needs can be sort of free if that labour is a personal response to personal need.  A mother knitting a blanket for her child would be an example; a father building furniture for that child to use would be another.  These people are responding to their own needs in ways they design and execute.  Marx honours the people who can say they build their house "with their own hands."  Some critics say he is nostalgic for the older craft economy.  Clearly he hates what replaced it.


In the textile mills that were the pervasive factory form of Marx's day, women may still produce blankets, but it's no longer for their own "use value."  Instead the blanket is produced according to a plan that the worker did not devise, the actual work may be broken down into segments (cf. McDonaldization), and then the "product" is taken away from the worker (who may never see the finished whatever) and sold at market.  Thus what is produced becomes a "commodity."  The value of the blanket is now what it can be sold for, or its "exchange value." Workers have to satisfy their needs by buying back what they have produced, but these commodities no longer bear any mark of their production.  In the mill the labour is "made strange" from him or herself during the labour process (by working according to the routines and demands of others, the owner-capitalists), and in the market he or she is made strange from the object produced, which has become the commodity.  The commodity is the physical embodiment, the expression, of alienation.


Work is thus alienated. In labour for use value or in free labour, the worker comes to know him/herself through what is produced.  In alienated labour, the worker may never see what is produced and if s/he does, it will appear as having come from elsewhere, as if my magic (think back to what I said about the creation of department stores and "show rooms").  What then do people work for?  Obviously for wages, with which to buy these strange commodities from nowhere.  As George Ritzer writes, "Instead of being an end in itself, an expression of human capabilities, labor in capitalism is reduced to a means to an end--earning money" (p. 163).


So why, if all this is so bad, is there no revolution?  Many answers have been suggested, among them these.  First, work is not all people do.  The worker who is alienated in the factory may come home and engage in free labour in his/her garden.  Life presents many forms of self-fulfilling activity (to use that word in the Marxist sense).  Unlike Marx's day, today people have more "leisure" time and work may be a less important part of their lives.  (In Marx's day people worked 12 hours days, often 6 and a half days a week.)  This issue returns us to one of Marx’s unquestioned presuppositions, which is that humans define themselves in their work.  Few would question that work is important, but it may not be as completely important as Marx believed.


A second reason is that the conditions of work have changed.  The assembly line still exists in many forms (such as McDonalds) but many workers do have some scope of creativity in their work.  Professors may regard their universities as "McVersities" but we have considerable freedom in what and how we teach.  Professorial work is one example of the quasi-alienated labour that is pervasive in an information age; so is the labour you do as students.


A third and more complex reason has to do with false consciousness.  Commodities either don't seem so strange to people, or if they do, there are always more commodities to purchase, with the never-ending hope that the next one will bring a fulfillment that the last one didn't.  Capitalism thrives on that hope.  Here as elsewhere, Marx failed to appreciate the extension of commodity acquisition to the "proletariat" and how much that proletariat would embrace acquisition.  I doubt Marx could imagine "shopping" as a leisure activity.  For him this would be the final capitulation to alienation; the last acceptance of the capitalist ideology.  But now we reach a tricky question:  can we tell those happy shoppers that they are alienated, and their consciousness is "false"?  I think this is a crucial question for sociology, and completely unresolved.  It matters not just for Marxist studies, but for example for feminist studies of the body:  are dieting and cosmetics, even cosmetic surgery, forms of false consciousness in which women have accepted male values as their own self-worth?  The consumers themselves often insist they know exactly what they are doing; can we (social scientists, Marxists, feminists) call them victims of an ideology that is more powerful than they are?  An open question.


More complexity: McDonaldization presents some powerful images of alienation, both in the labour of producing food and in the consumption of that food.  Eating is reduced to animal "fueling up," and the labour process is broken down and regulated so that no worker can ever take any pride in what is produced.  Deskilling is the essence of alienation, and McD is built on deskilled labour.  But tell this to the woman who is labouring over a wood stove preparing food with iron pots and no running water or refrigeration; tell her that her labour is "fulfilling" in its response to her family's "use value."  Marx would accuse me of setting up a dichotomy in which neither extreme is desirable, but I want to suggest that applying Marx isn't easy.  But easy or not, I find McDonalds unanalysable without the concept of alienation; I NEED Marx to make sense of my world.


Marx's theory of alienation occurs to me throughout the day, as I reflect on my own alienation from this or that work, or as I note the way others are doing their work.  In this reflection, I act in my most human capacity: imagining a life that could be better, and even doing some work (teaching) to help "realize" that ideal.