Reading Guide: What's So Special About Alienation?

Nov 22nd, 2015
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The Estrangement of Labour, page 1 of 3

We shall start out from an actual economic fact. The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labour not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.

This fact simply means that the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer …. The realization of labour is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy, this realization of labour appears as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the realization of labour appear as loss of reality that the worker loses his reality to the point of dying of starvation. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects he needs most not only for life but also for work. Work itself becomes an object which he can only obtain through an enormous effort and with spasmodic interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital ….

The Estrangement of Labour, page 2 of 3

Up to now, we have considered the estrangement, the alienation of the worker, only from one aspect—i.e., the worker's relationship to the products of his labour. But estrangement manifests itself not only in the result, but also in the act of production, within the activity of production itself. After all, the product is simply the resume of the activity, of the production. So if the product of labour is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation. The estrangement of the object of labour merely summarizes the estrangement, the alienation in the activity of labour itself.

What constitutes the alienation of labour?

Firstly, the fact that labour is external to the worker—i.e., 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. 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 needs 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. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Finally, the external character of labour for the worker is demonstrated by the fact that it belongs not to him but to another, and that in it he belongs not to himself but to another ….

The result is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions—eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment—while in his human functions, he is nothing more than animal ….

The Estrangement of Labour, page 3 of 3

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity. Only because of that is he a species-being. Or, rather, he is a conscious being …. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labour reverses the relationship so that man, just because he is a conscious being, makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means for his existence.

The practical creation of an objective world, the fashioning of inorganic nature, is proof that man is a conscious species-being …. It is true that animals also produce. They build nests and dwelling, like the bee, the beaver, the ant, etc. But they produce only their own immediate needs or those of their young; they produce only when immediate physical need compels them to do so, while man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need ….

It is, therefore, in his fashioning of the objective that man really proves himself to be a species-being. The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of the species-life of man: for man produces himself not only intellectually, in his consciousness, but actively and actually, and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself has created. In tearing away the object of his production from man, estranged labour therefore tears away from him his species-life, his true species-objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.

In the same way as estranged labour reduces spontaneous and free activity to a means, it makes man's species-life a means of his physical existence. Consciousness, which man has from his species, is transformed through estrangement so that species-life becomes a means for him.

Estranged labour, therefore, turns man's species-being—both nature and his intellectual species-power—into a being alien to him and a means of his individual existence. It estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence, his human existence.

Explaining Estrangement

Even though Marx wrote the passage more than 150 years ago, his topic remains relevant to many people today.

You have learned that the law of supply and demand applies to wages because labor is a commodity that gets bought and sold in the labor market. Marx examines how this affects the labor process. Clearly it has significant effects on wages, but Marx wanted to point out the effect on workers as well.

The main effect he examines is the estrangement produced by paying wages in exchange for work. Because of this arrangement, the goods and services that the worker creates become "something alien" and "a power independent of the producer." Why? Because the things workers create don't belong to the workers; they belong to the producer who pays the wages. Workers get wages in return for their time and effort, while the things that they create are taken from them in exchange for these wages.

Marx tries to point out how bad this is for workers by indicating that the products of their labor are part of their "essential being." That is why he uses the termspecies-being, to indicate that humans are laboring beings who naturally connect with the products of their labor. But, according to Marx, workers paid wages in exchange for the products of their labor have a different, unnatural relationship to labor. Instead of their labor being fundamental to their existence, it is just a means to an end. Wages drive a wedge between workers and the products of their labor, so wage-labor ends up alienating workers.

Reading Guide: What's So Special About Alienation?

(4 points)

1.  What was Marx's purpose in writing this essay? Does he succeed in getting his point across?

(4 points)

2.  What does Marx mean to convey by the term species-being? Does this concept help you to understand estrangement and alienation more clearly? 

(4 points)

3.  Do Marx's claims about estrangement and alienation still hold true today? Explain.

(4 points)

4.  Are there some jobs that don't fit Marx's claims? If so, what are they, and why don't they lead to estrangement and alienation? If not, why are estrangement and alienation part of all forms of labor? 

(4 points)

5.  Does Marx's essay help illuminate any of your own work experiences? Can you relate to his discussion? Why or why not? 

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