Marx’s theory of alienation: A world where workers have no control

Alienation: an introduction to Marx’s theory
by Dan Swain Bookmarks

This useful little book provides a very good introduction to Marx’s theory of alienation.

For Marxists, the term alienation has a special meaning. It is the description of workers’ lack of control over the labour process and the effect this has on ourselves and our lives.

Swain starts with a quote from a Scottish trade unionist, Jimmy Reid, that provides a concise definition of alienation: “It is the cry of men [sic] who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision-making. It is the feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destiny.”

Marx described how alienation creates a situation where all our human activity is experienced as something external, alien and hostile to us.

This profoundly unnatural state of affairs is a consequence of the capitalist mode of production. And because it is rooted in capitalism, it can only be overcome by a revolution that overturns the system.

Labour and human nature

For Marx there is no eternal, unchanging human nature. Our human nature changes according to how society is organised. But our lack of control over our labour has such an impact, Marx argued, because labour is crucial to what makes us human.

Our labour is conscious, creative and transforming. It is also, importantly, collective. Humans are social creatures. We have always existed collectively, and must do so to survive.
Unlike animals, human beings interact consciously with nature.

Marx describes in a famous quote from Capital how: “…a bee would put any human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which has already been conceived of by the worker at the beginning.”

Alienated labour

But under capitalism, our labour is no longer our own. It is sold to someone else for a wage.
We live in a class society, where capitalists own the machinery, the technology and the finance that we must work on. So the means of labouring upon the world are controlled by a tiny minority of people. Workers are compelled to work for those who own the means of production.

Labour has become, instead of something creative, something that is destructive, coercive and outside of our control. As Marx put it, “the activity of the worker is not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another, it is a loss of self.” That we know work as a burden, a necessary evil to be endured, is a symptom of our alienation.

Marx explains the effects this has on us: “The fact that labour is external to the worker, does not belong to his essential being; that he therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind.

Hence the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labour is therefore not voluntary but forced, it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but a mere means to satisfy need outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists it is shunned like the plague.”

At work, all control is subordinated to the boss. Decisions about what work to do, when and how to do it, are made not collectively, but by the boss and the forces of the market.

Labour also becomes incredibly boring, stifling and uncreative because it is completely subordinated to the needs of capitalist production. The pressure to compete, to sell on the market, means work is divided into tiny tasks that only require us to use a few of our talents.

The human quality of our work is lost. In fact our individuality becomes a liability. We must become a cog in a big machine. Workers have come simply to be seen as an abstract quantity of labour for hire, or as Marx put it, “workers are abstract activity and a stomach” and “an appendage of a machine.”

Everything must be measurable, comparable, quantified, and saleable on the market.

Swain’s description of modern call centres—where toilet breaks are often measured by a computer system—are an example of the kind of degrading work practices this creates.

And importantly the goods we make have become alien to us. We don’t own them, they are made for someone else and make someone else money. Many workers cannot even afford what they make; for instance FoxConn workers in China mass producing Apple products.

In fact the products we produce can actually become a threat to us. So technology, which could relieve some of the burden of work, can instead threaten job losses. Workers are also forced to produce things that are going to kill our planet and ourselves (carbon emissions and weapons, for example).

Our lack of control over society is not just manifested in the workplace, but in all aspects of life.
We have no power over the state as a whole, over our landlords, over the banks we must use, over the companies we have to purchase things from, like our electricity or mobile phones. Capitalism alienates us all from the society in which we live.

Commodity fetishism

This alienation has profound consequences for the relationships between people.
In a world where everything is based on the exchange of commodities on the market, our relationship to the world comes to seem like a relationship to commodities.

As Marx said, “It seems as if the thing itself [the commodity] possesses the ability, the virtue, to establish production relations”—as opposed to their being established by human action. Objects are given human powers, in much the same way God is given human powers in religion.

Commodities appear as independent entities outside of our control rather than the products of our labour. Marx called this “commodity fetishism”.

Think about money. Money is actually useless in itself. But as the medium of exchange under capitalism, it has a mystical quality. Money is said to generate more money through investment—even though it is really labour that is the source of all wealth.

The mystical quality of commodities is exploited by advertisers, who tell us their products can do all sorts of things for us, like make us attractive, and so on. This hollow consumerism has produced a world where the average adult can recognise 1000 brand names and logos, but fewer than ten plants.

Under capitalism, even people appear as commodities—as Marx put it, we “see other people through the lens of profit and loss.” We interact with others as economic categories like customer and employee.

As Marx explained, an “immediate consequence of man’s estrangement from the products of his labour, his life activity, his species being, is the estrangement of man from man.”

Market competition enters almost every area of life. Whether in getting a job, getting an education or getting a house we are forced into a competitive race.

Our powerless can lead us to try and express control in our lives in a negative fashion. Part of the appeal of nationalism, racism, sexism and homophobia is that it gives the abuser a sense of power (albeit a false and illusory sense that is ultimately against our own interests).

Swain even argues that this lack of control makes the working class unhealthy. He cites studies including those from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level showing greater control at work was the most likely explanation for death rates three times less among public servants in the UK.

Health differences between the upper and lower classes, then, are not just a matter of financial inequality and unequal access to health care, but also a result of class division and hierarchy making us miserable and sick.

Collective control

How can we overcome alienation? Swain uses a moving example from the revolution in Poland.
During 1979-1980 and the rise of Solidarnosc (Solidarity), a Communist Party newspaper reported a psychiatrist saying all her working class patients had discharged themselves to join the revolution.

The movement against Stalinism was turning into a movement for collective control over workplaces and society that was spreading all across Poland—and it made people feel better!

This liberating potential exists even in much smaller struggles, as every successful strike involves the assertion of greater working class control over decisions in the workplace.

In Poland an estimated 4000 enterprises joined the strike and occupation movement. Transport and other essential services were run under workers’ control.

Strike committees elected delegates to workers’ councils, placing the economy back under the control of those who have created it.

This points to the way out. Marx explained that under capitalism, “no sphere of human activity lies outside the prison walls”. To rid the world of alienation we must radically reassert our control over our labour.

Alienation holds us back from collective solutions and encourages the idea that politics must be left to the experts. But when we are drawn into struggle against the system we can begin to see our own power. We can discover who it is that does the work and who it is that should be making the decisions.

It is in winning a new world that the misery produced by alienation can be overcome.

By Amy Thomas


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Karl Marx and the First International

Christian Høgsbjerg shows how Karl Marx made a vital contribution to found the first international workers’ organisation and how he fought to ensure its militant trajectory.

Are we too selfish for socialism?

Geraldine Fela looks at the claim that the selfishness of human nature means socialism is impossible

Evolution, human nature and social change

What can human evolution tell us about human nature and the possibility of social change, asks Penny HowardTHERE IS a common-sense belief that it is impossible...