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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

March 1 – Marx’s Theory of Alienation

The alienation of labour that takes place specifically in capitalist society is sometimes mistakenly described as four distinct types or forms of alienation. It is, on the contrary, a single total reality that can be analyzed from a number of different points of view.  In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx discusses four aspects of the alienation of labour, as it takes place in capitalist society: one is alienation from the product of labour; another is alienation from the activity of labour; a third is alienation from one’s own specific humanity; and a fourth is alienation from others, from society. There is nothing mysterious about this fourfold breakdown of alienation. It follows from the idea that all acts of labour involve an activity of some sort that produces an object of some sort, performed by a human being (not a work animal or a machine) in some sort of social context.

Alienation in general, at the most abstract level, can be thought of as a surrender of control through separation from an essential attribute of the self, and, more specifically, separation of an actor or agent from the conditions of meaningful agency. In capitalist society the most important such separation, the one that ultimately underlies many, if not most other forms, is the separation of most of the producers from the means of production. Most people do not themselves own the means necessary to produce things. That is, they do not own the means that are necessary to produce and reproduce their lives. The means of production are, instead owned by a relatively few. Most people only have access to the means of production when they are employed  by the owners of the means of production to produce under conditions that the producers themselves do not determine.

So alienation is not meant by Marx to indicate merely an attitude, a subjective feeling of being without control. Although alienation may be felt and even understood, fled from and even resisted, it is not simply as a subjective condition that Marx is interested in it. Alienation is the objective structure of experience and activity in capitalist society. Capitalist society cannot exist without it. Capitalist society, in its very essence, requires that people be placed into such a structure and, even better, that they come to believe and accept that it is natural and just. The only way to get rid of alienation would be to get rid of the basic structure of separation of the producers from the means of production. So alienation has both its objective and subjective sides. One can undergo it without being aware of it, just as one can undergo alcoholism or schizophrenia without being aware of it. But no one in capitalist society can escape this condition (without escaping capitalist society). Even the capitalist, according to Marx, experiences alienation, but as a “state”, differently from the worker, who experiences it as an “activity”. Marx, however, pays little attention to the capitalist’s experience of alienation, since his experience is not of the sort which is likely to bring into question the institutions that underpin that experience.

The first aspect of alienation is alienation from the product of labour. In capitalist society, that which is produced, the objectification of labour, is lost to the producer. In Marx’s words, “objectification becomes the loss of the object”. The object is a loss, in the very mundane and human sense, that the act of producing it is the same act in which it becomes the property of another. Alienation here, takes on the very specific historical form of the separation of worker and owner. That which I produced, or we produced, immediately becomes the possession of another and is therefore out of our control. Since it is out of my control, it can and does become an external and autonomous power on its own.

In making a commodity as a commodity (for the owner of the means of production) I not only lose control over the product I make, I produce something which is hostile to me. We produce it; he possesses it. His possession of what we produce gives him power over us. Not only are we talking here about the things that are produced for direct consumption. More basically, we are talking about the production of the means of production themselves. The means of production are produced by workers, but completely controlled by owners. The more we, the workers, produce, the more productive power there is for someone else to own and control. We produce someone else’s power over us. He uses what we have produced in order to wield his power over us. The more we produce, the more they have and the less we have. If I make a wage, I can work for forty or fifty years, and at the end of my life have not much more than I had at the beginning, and none of my fellow workers do either. Where has all this work gone? Some has gone into sustaining us so that we can go on working, but a great deal has gone into the expanded reproduction of the means of production, on behalf of the owners and their power. “Society” gets wealthier, but the individuals themselves do not. They do not own or control a greater proportion of the wealth.

The hostility of the product over which I relinquish my control in selling my labour – this also refers to the inhuman power of the impersonal  laws of production . The laws of capitalist production have power over me. The boss, the capitalist owner himself, may simply be regarded as merely the representative of more remote, hidden, and inscrutable forces. His excuse, when he informs me that I am no longer needed, that he would have to close up the place or go broke if he didn’t do this, is no mere excuse. The capitalist himself is merely a priest who lives well off the service of capital, and not a god. When the god speaks, he too must jump, or he will find himself in my place, where god knows, no one wants to be. So, between him and me, it’s “nothing personal”. But this is exactly the problem, not an excuse.

The second aspect of alienation, alienation from the activity of labour, means that in labouring I lose control over my life-activity. Not only do I lose control over the thing I produce, I lose control over the activity of producing it. My activity is not self-expression. My activity has no relation to my desires about what I want to do, no relation with the ways I might choose to express myself, no relation with the person I am or might try to become. The only relation that the activity has with me is that it is a way of filling my belly and keeping a roof over my head. My life activity is not life-activity. It is merely the means of self-preservation and survival. In alienated labour, Marx claims, humans are reduced to the level of an animal, working only for the purpose of filling a physical gap, producing under the compulsion of direct physical need.

Alienation from my life-activity also means that my life-activity is directed by another. Somebody else, the foreman, the engineer, the head office, the board of directors, foreign competition, the world-market, the very machinery I am operating, it/they decide what and how and how long and with whom I am going to act. Somebody else also decides what will be done with my product. And I must do this for the vast majority of my waking hours on earth. What could and should be free conscious activity, and what they tell me I have contracted to do as a free worker, becomes forced labour. It is imposed by my need and by the other’s possession of the means of satisfying all needs. As a result I relate to my own activity as though it were something alien to me, as though it were not really mine, which it isn’t. I do not truly belong in this place, doing this thing over and over and over again, until I cannot even think or feel anything but the minutes ticking over until quitting time. The real me wants to be doing something.

My activity becomes the activity of another. Life comes to be split between alien work and escape from working, which for us is “leisure”. Because our own life activity becomes an alien power over our lives, activity itself gets a bad name. and we tend to avoid it when we are on our own, in our “free time”. Free time itself tends to become equated with freedom from activity, because activity is compulsion. Freedom is equated with the opposite of action and production; freedom is consumption, or just passive, mindless “fun”, or just blowing off steam. Only in class society is there such an equation of activity with pain and of leisure with inactivity or sloth, for activity under alienated labour is not self-expression but self-denial. All our capacities are parceled out into marketable skills. We talk about “human resources” or youth as “our most precious resource”, all of which pseudo-humanist jargon expresses the same reality, that human labour is turned into a commodity to be bought and sold like any other.

As this civilization moves on we get, of course, an ever finer and more detailed separation of hand and brain, of sense and intelligence, manifested in the truncated capacities of both masters and wage-slaves. Some people are likely to spend their entire lives developing the capacity to locate defects in the ends of cans. This becomes their forced contribution to the human species. And it is in this sense that we are not without cause, in the latest stages of capitalism, of thinking of ourselves as appendages of a machine. In a sense, capitalism involves a devolution even behind the work-animal. At least the work-animal is an enslaved total organism. Even a tool or a slave can be used to carry out many different things. But by the time you get to the highest stage of capitalism, human functions can be more dehumanized than that of a tool: you become the appendage of a machine, just part of a tool, a cog in the vast machine of production.

By many routes, then, alienation from the product and from the activity of labour lead up to and involve alienation in its third aspect, alienation from the self or from the human essence. It is not only the product that becomes an alien power. It is not only that self-development becomes self-denial. Internally related to these others is a loss of self. To alienate my labour-power, to be forced to sell it as a commodity on the market, is to lose my life-activity, which is my very self. It is to become other than myself. Sometimes we speak innocently enough of being beside ourselves or feeling remote from ourselves; or sometimes we use the language of the search for identity and authenticity, of not knowing who we are or not recognizing who we’ve become. From a Marxian point of view, we are talking about something social and historical rather than something metaphysical or existential. At a deeper level still, the sense of loss of identity or loss of meaning is an expression, but one still alienated itself, of our real loss of humanity, alienation from the human “species-being”, as Marx sometimes calls it. This is one thing Marxists mean when they talk about de-humanization.

There is a further aspect of alienation from self  which Marx pays little attention to in his later work, but which receives some mention in the Manuscripts and remains important at an implicit level. And it is perhaps most appropriate to discuss it in relation to alienation from self. This further aspect is alienation from sensuousness. Marx conceives of the history of human labour as, among other things, a formation of the human senses themselves. The human senses are not passive mechanisms, a blank slate on which the world leaves its mark more or less clearly and strongly. Marx understands sense perception itself to be the outcome of a process of the labour of a historical subject. The sensuous forms in which we perceive things and their relations is therefore the product of the history of an active subject. The sense themselves are not given, once and for all, but open to education, broadening, refining, formation and re-formation.

If the senses themselves are a product of the process of human collective self-constitution, it is meaningful to speak of  an alienation of sensuousness. In capitalist society, our life activity is alienated. As a result we engage in inherently sensuous activities, but in an alienated fashion, almost exclusively, that is, for non-sensuous, extrinsic, extraneous purposes. In order to satisfy virtually any need, we must in capitalist society, work through the medium of money. Most of the things we do, we do in order to make money or to put ourselves in the position to make money, or improve our capacities to make money. There is very little, if anything that a human being could imagine wanting, that is not offered to us as a possible object of a cash transaction. Thus the things with which we are engaged are never approached with an eye to either their own intrinsic value or to their human value in a broader sense. We do not relate most of the time to most things in terms of their intrinsically sensuous and aesthetic reality. The imperatives of capitalist society thus enter into our conscious and semi-conscious experience even at the level of sense and perception itself. We are taught to literally see and feel things as utilities, as abstract counters in the process of making still more money. We become alienated from what Marx calls our subjective human sensibilities. Our senses are not so much animalized or brutalized as they are mechanized. If our life-activity were our own, this would necessarily involve the intensive cultivation of our capacity for aesthetic appreciation of sensuous reality. Humans are, after all, according to Marx, the only species that can produce in conscious appreciation of the laws of beauty. Under alienated labour, sense experience becomes a modifiable sign for things and relations that can be turned into money, the sign of all things. Because our activity is degraded to the level of mechanical subservience to crude needs, or, in reaction to that we perhaps become aesthetes, we regard everything only from the standpoint of the use it can be put. Or we come to attach a perception of beauty or aesthetic value to that which commands a high price. We can be impressed with the supposed aesthetic value of something because it is expensive.  

This relation to everything, even the objects of sense and beauty, in terms of its usefulness to the expanded reproduction of capital means we no longer have an eye for the thing itself. Oriented mainly to pieces of the world whose monetary value means that they are essentially interchangeable, we are brought that much more easily to relate to ourselves and each other in this way. We begin to evaluate ourselves and each other in terms of the amount of money we can make. Or parts of ourselves can be ranked in such terms. We are less able, if still able, to perceive and appreciate the intrinsic qualities of anything, even including ourselves. This dehumanization of the senses, and of perception and of judgement, is not something accidental to the dehumanization of humans.

We are thus led to the fourth aspect, alienation from other people, or from society. Once the traditional community (which understood itself as natural) is broken down, human beings become essentially potentially useful or threatening objects. One can now have enemies in a new sense. Only with the breakdown of primitive communism does man become a wolf to man. “Man is a wolf to man” (homo homini lupus ) was one of Hobbes’s favourite sayings. “Wolflike” behaviour  can and does occur in “primitive” societies and between such societies, but it is not the principle of those societies. It does become the central and organizing principle of class societies. In the market it is hard to say that the antagonism of classes becomes more severe, but the antagonism among individuals certainly increases.
Now, according to Marx, “human nature” must be grasped as “the ensemble of social relations”. It is not simply our neuro-physiological constitution or our DNA that makes us behave or act selfishly. We live, according to Marx, in a society in which each individual must see in every other, not the possibility of his liberty, but its limitation. Every other becomes an obstacle to me, but – and this is important too – a needed obstacle, a customer, a client, a creditor, a debtor, an employer or employee. (We haven’t even come up with a better replacement for patriarchalist terms such as husband and wife than “partner” – which suggests nothing so much as a boardroom full of lawyers). The other is a rival. It is not that cooperation here is impossible. In fact we learn to coordinate our activities on an ever more grand scale and complex level. It is that this cooperation can only take place as the coincidence of separate and competing “enlightened” self-interests.

In feudal society, or in Aristotle’s polis, one’s life-activity was directly determined by one’s pre-ordained social status. Along with this, however, came a solidary bond integrating the occupants of the various strata. The lord-peasant relationship was a direct, personal bond of two-way loyalty and duty (and even affection). The exploitation of the peasant was an integral part of a patriarchal relation. Even though the solidarity of such societies was a pseudo-solidarity, a solidarity based upon exploitation, it was still a solidarity. What the market society does is to relentlessly smash the patriarchal links between lord and peasant. Each individual is to be thrown upon his own resources in order to make his fortune or not, as the case may be. The market society severs the patriarchal link between lord and peasant, lord and lord, peasant and peasant, and substitutes for it the cash nexus. For the personal relationship is substituted one of personal indifference. The bottom line of the contractual relationship is cash. Previously the worker worked for the community either directly or in personal subservience to his superior, and the subservience of labour was an essential feature of a community felt to have the unity of an organism. Previously it was assumed that community was only possible as the subordination of one social organ to another.

Now, however, my work is not service. Now I work for money, which I will spend any damn way I feel like. As a result, for Marx, although this is in one way a less illusory of living, since it doesn’t need to depend on religious or mythical foundations to justify an explicit and clear hierarchy, in another way it is more illusory. My freedom is largely only in appearance. In reality my life-activity is still given up to a superior who is a superior, even though he is formally and by law my equal. In his later work, Marx will especially concentrate on the fact that everything is translated into money terms, and that all relations are mediated by money. In capitalist society, he says, “everyone carries the social bond in his pocket.”

Although Marx does not in the 1844 Manuscripts make the point directly and explicitly, there is a direct connection between Marx’s thoughts on alienation from society and his critique of the state. Those who wish to follow this theme further should read On the Jewish Question.  For Marx, the existence of the state implies what we could call a political alienation. Often the Marxian notion of the abolition or the withering away of the state is met by the sort of puzzled reaction one might reserve for the abolition of the sun, moon and stars. But Marx would not call the operation of something like Rousseau’s general will a state. The form of direct self-government comprised in the idea of the sovereignty of the general will would not be considered a state form. The state, according to Marx, is the set of institutions that arises in order to hold together a society that is continually falling apart. The state is a function of other, deeper social antagonisms that are in principle corrigible. It is a function of the universal individual antagonisms of class societies, but especially a function of class division itself, and of the possibility of open class antagonism. The state is a necessary means of coercion and coordination once society can no longer hold itself together by other means, or before it has learned how to do so once again.

The state is an integral part of class society, not something apart from or beyond it; not something neutral and capable of standing disinterestedly above all particular interests. Whereas theorists like Hegel would argue that in the modern state individuals were in actual reality reconciled and unified, Marx maintains that the state is necessary only because of  the real antagonisms class societies generate and sustain among individuals. Nor do individuals in the modern, liberal or even democratic-capitalist state really find a community of equals. Instead, in the state, they come together to deny the inequality and separateness that is their real existence in social and economic life. Their coming together in the political community of the state is thus an illusion, because they are separated in fact. The solidarity of earlier, more organic forms of society is supposedly recovered, in bourgeois society, in the political relationship of free and equal citizens. But this is a pseudo-solidarity, given the lie by the many substantial inequalities outside the formal equality established by constitutional law, and by the fact that the powerful within the private sphere have the power to reach out and have the state work primarily in their fundamental interests. As the French writer, Anatole France once said, “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike from begging alms, stealing bread and sleeping under bridges.” It is only because in real life people are alienated from one another through the cash nexus that is increasingly the only thing that connects them, that they must solidarize in an ideal and false unity a formally equal citizens.

Here the notion of an “inverted” or “double” world appears  that will become important later on in Marx’s notion of “commodity fetishism”. As a corrective to, and also as a mystification of, a contradictory reality, a supplementary but illusory reality is invented and, as it were, laid on top of the first. What is illusory is not the actual power of the state, but the notions that the state is the only thing that can hold a society of human beings together, and that it can do this while sustaining and expressing the freedom and equality of all its citizens. The state is just such an illusory reality, existing by virtue of the misperception that the antagonisms of bourgeois society are the natural and inevitable, eternal and essential antagonisms of human beings as such. And, in truth, it is a necessary and real illusion – to bourgeois society. Thus, the state cannot be abolished, as some anarchists would have it, by the fiat of individuals. The abolition of the state depends on the prior transformation and abolition of class society. The state functions essentially to maintain society in its present form, as a society based upon class divisions rooted in the way material life is produced and reproduced. But the abolition of class society and its state would not mean the disappearance of differences or of the need for politics. If anything politics would be more prevalent than ever (as opposed to the administration of a subject population) – if what we mean by politics is something like individuals communicating and acting together to resolve conflicts between human needs and social conditions. The existence of processes through which individuals decide upon common policies and common action is not what Marx would call the state.  

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