What Karl Marx Meant by “Alienation”: Two Animated Videos Explain

A com­mon polit­i­cal dis­tor­tion claims that social­ists are lazy and want to live off oth­er people’s labor. Nev­er mind that this descrip­tion best applies to those who do not work but live off rents, div­i­dends, and tax breaks. A big­ger prob­lem with the idea lies in its def­i­n­i­tion of “work,” con­flat­ing labor-for-hire with labor for a pur­pose. In Karl Marx’s the­o­ries, work occu­pies a cen­tral posi­tion as a human val­ue. We all want to work, he thought. We are not born, how­ev­er, want­i­ng to max­i­mize share­hold­er val­ue.

Marx believed that “work, at its best, is what makes us human,” X‑Files star Gillian Ander­son tells us in the BBC Radio 4 ani­ma­tion above. “‘It ful­fills our species essence,’ as he put it. Work allows us “to live, to be cre­ative, to flour­ish.” Work in the indus­tri­al 19th cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, did noth­ing of the kind. You only need to imag­ine for a moment the soot-filled fac­to­ries, child labor, com­plete lack of work­er pro­tec­tions and ben­e­fits to see the kinds of con­di­tions to which Marx wrote in response. “Work,” says Ander­son, in brief, “destroyed work­ers.”

Under cap­i­tal­ism, Marx main­tained, work­ers are “alien­at­ed” from their labor, a con­cept that does not just mean emo­tion­al­ly depressed or cre­ative­ly unful­filled. As ear­ly as 1844, over twen­ty years before the first vol­ume of Cap­i­tal appeared, Marx would elab­o­rate the con­cept of “estranged labor”  in an essay of the same name:

The work­er becomes all the poor­er the more wealth he pro­duces, the more his pro­duc­tion increas­es in pow­er and size. The work­er becomes an ever cheap­er com­mod­i­ty the more com­modi­ties he cre­ates. The deval­u­a­tion of the world of men is in direct pro­por­tion to the increas­ing val­ue of the world of things. Labor pro­duces not only com­modi­ties; it pro­duces itself and the work­er as a com­mod­i­ty.

In an econ­o­my where things mat­ter more than peo­ple, peo­ple become deval­ued things: the “real­iza­tion of labor appears as loss of real­iza­tion for the work­ers; objec­ti­fi­ca­tion as loss of the object and bondage to it; appro­pri­a­tion as estrange­ment, as alien­ation.” Work­ers are not only spir­i­tu­al­ly dis­sat­is­fied under cap­i­tal­ism, they are alien­at­ed from the fruit of their labor “to the point of starv­ing to death.” To be an alien­at­ed work­er means to be lit­er­al­ly kept from things one needs to live.

This is the kind of work Marx­ists and social­ists have opposed, that which gross­ly enrich­es a few at the expense of most every­one else. Whether or not we are con­tent with Marx­ist solu­tions or feel a need for new the­o­ries, every seri­ous stu­dent of his­to­ry, econ­o­my, and cul­ture has to come to grips with Marx’s for­mi­da­ble cri­tiques. In the video above, Alain de Botton’s School of Life, a self-described “pro-Cap­i­tal­ist insti­tu­tion,” attempts to do so in ten min­utes or less.

“Most peo­ple agree that we need to improve our eco­nom­ic sys­tem some­how,” says de Bot­ton. “It threat­ens our plan­et through exces­sive con­sump­tion, dis­tracts us with irrel­e­vant adver­tis­ing, leaves peo­ple hun­gry and with­out health­care, and fuels unnec­es­sary wars.” It per­pet­u­ates, in oth­er words, pro­found alien­ation on a mas­sive scale. Of course it does, Marx might respond. That’s exact­ly what the sys­tem is designed to do. Or as he actu­al­ly wrote, “the only wheels which polit­i­cal econ­o­my sets in motion are greed, and the war amongst the greedy — com­pe­ti­tion.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Marx­ism by Ray­mond Geuss: A Free Online Course 

A Short Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Karl Marx

5 Free Online Cours­es on Marx’s Cap­i­tal from Prof. David Har­vey

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Warren Peace says:

    ‘Hey all you atom­ised, self-employed free­lance work­ers with­out any real form of unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, work­ers comp, health insur­ance, den­tal insur­ance, parental leave, hol­i­day pay, pen­sions, shared work­places or even shared indus­tries — unite!’

  • Mike Ballard says:

    Inter­est­ing that turn­ing the col­lec­tive prod­uct of labour into the pri­vate prop­er­ty of cap­i­tal­ists was­n’t men­tioned because alien­ation is found­ed on alien­at­ing the own­er­ship and con­trol of the prod­uct of your labour by trad­ing or exchang­ing it for wages which are the price of your skills, a price which fluc­tu­ates with sup­ply and demand for them around their val­ue. And their val­ue? That is deter­mined by the amount of social­ly nec­es­sary labour time embod­ied in them, as per­ceived by the cap­i­tal­ist who employs you to pro­duce goods and ser­vices which end up being owned not by the pro­duc­er, but the cap­i­tal­ist. So, if the pro­duc­ers own the col­lec­tive prod­uct of their labour they are no long alien­at­ed. If they don’t, they are. The roots of alien­ation are to be found in the wages sys­tem of slav­ery. This is why Marx advised work­ers to inscribe “abo­li­tion of the wage sys­tem” on their ban­ners. Read “Val­ue, Price and Prof­it” as opposed to swal­low­ing this social demo­c­ra­t­ic twad­dle.

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