Alienation in a Capitalist Economy

Written by Shawn Funk

Capitalism is an economic system that is characterized by the private ownership of the means of production and unfettered competition in the marketplace (Marx, 1844/2007). It has led to a high level of innovation and growth while increasing the standard of living for the general population, yet for all its grandeur, capitalism has a cost. That is, the alienation of the human from themselves, their work, their products, and their fellow citizens. 

At the heart of Marx’s theory of history is the idea that our consciousness is derived by our material conditions. This is called dialectical materialism. In other words, Marx attributes historical change to the material conditions that determine our mode of production and produce our means of life (Marx, 1932/2007). Dialectical materialism implies a sort of feedback loop; we act on the material environment, and the material environment acts back, giving rise, Marx theorizes, to culture.  He indicates that “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men” (Marx, p. 409, 1932/2007). Thus, our culture, its ideas, conceptions, rituals, and how it perceives itself are all inextricably linked to the way it produces (mode of production) and what it produces. Historical change, Marx suggests, is linked to changes in our modes of production and the class struggles (revolutions) that accompany these changes (Wolff & Leopold, 2020).    

Karl Marx’s Head

Marx states that humans begin to “distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization” (Marx, p.409, 1932/2007). Our production, therefore, was our ticket out of the natural world and into a La-Z Boy. This departure from nature implies a separation of nature from itself, a splitting from unity into two distinct entities, the newly formed human subject and the natural world. The ability to cultivate nature, to reshape it, to essentially conquer it seems, to Marx, the defining feature of humanity, giving rise to the fundamental ideas that form the basis of culture. In a sense, Marx is saying we are what we build. It is our production that brings meaning to our lives, but what happens when the fruits of our production no longer belong to the labourer, when labour itself is no longer owned by the labourer? If meaning is fundamentally linked to our production, then severing this link, according to Marx, would lead to alienation and the loss of meaning.

Where the means of production are owned by private interests, as in a capitalist economy, the labour that the labourer produces becomes the property of another, alienating the labourer from their work, their product, others and their self.

Marx calls this the alienation of labour (Marx, 1844/2007). He suggests that while you are at work, you are set apart from your chosen lifestyle. In a sense, you are not yourself. You must act, dress, and talk in a standard form prescribed by the employer. You are not free to do as you please; it is not a democracy. The company owns you during the hours of employment. You have given your time, your labour, and in some cases, even your dignity. The fruits of your production do not belong to you. You will receive a fraction of the profit in the form of a wage. There is little point in working harder. You become disconnected from yourself during your labour, thinking of the things you would rather do. The little time you have for leisure is spent maintaining your existence. You eat, you sleep, you toilet, then you sleepwalk off to work as your nervous systems jerk. The more you labour, the less of yourself you are, yet the human inside wails for freedom (Marx, 1844/2007). You have become a cog in the machine. Here lies the crux of the concept of alienation.

Marx was very concerned with the alienating effect that private ownership had on the worker, yet today, our technology has a similar effect. Technological advances in the 20th and 21st centuries have reduced the need for human contact to obtain the necessities of life, going against our innate tendency to socialize. Indeed, our technologies play a role in the alienation of the modern human being by imposing an underlying order onto its users. Take, for example, something as simple as the T.V. dinner (I won’t use the obvious one: the cellphone). The implications of the T.V. dinner are as follows. Firstly, it is meant to be eaten in front of the T.V. You can’t talk back to the television. Second, it’s fast; throw it in the mic, it’s easy, and it comes with its own container! No help is needed to cook or clean up. Third, the supermarket down the street sells them 3 for $5, and the clerk rarely even makes eye contact. Lastly, it’s a single serving! Nobody is coming over for dinner. The process of cooking and eating has been emptied of all its humanity! Eating has become impersonal! The machine feeds us now! Maybe I’m being a little dramatic. My point here is that new technologies are filling the roles that other human beings once had in our personal lives, making humans less necessary in the production of our personal lives, meaning that you will encounter fewer people during the day, leaving opportunities for social contact wanting.  

If, as Marx indicated, we are alienated and live meaningless lives as a result, and our condition is inevitable, what could be the practical application of this knowledge? It’s simple: Marx wanted to sow discontent in the masses and foment a rebellion against dominant class interests. Wresting the means of production back from private interests was Marx’s solution to the alienation of the worker. This is precisely the reason why Marx was booted from nearly every city in Europe and lived in abject poverty (Richter, 2007). Nobody likes a troublemaker. Baked into Marx’s theory is the prophetic vision of a coming revolution. Marx thinks it happens every time! No, it doesn’t. The revolution is an inevitability for Marx, and it is what makes Marxism dangerous for the ruling class. If you are a disgruntled worker, Marxism was empowering in the sense that it promised change through revolutionary means, giving way to a socialist society where the means of production were owned by the workers. In practice, this amounted to little more than a change in management for the poor worker.    

The 20th century saw communist revolutions sweep across Asia and Europe, aligning themselves with the Soviet Union. These communist nations were collectively known as the Eastern Bloc (Kulik, n. d.). They adopted the one-party communist system of the Soviet Union, which is based on the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Unfortunately for the workers, the overthrow of the capitalists did not lead to self-realization, freedom, or happiness. The result was misery on a scale not seen before. Food shortages, repression, censorship, forced labour, and torture, the regimes of the Eastern Bloc, ruled by their soviet overlords, do not paint a flowery portrait of communism and offer no persuasion to the effectiveness of communism as a political system (Kulik, n. d.). In other words, Marx’s revolutionary mode failed to bring about the changes in the human condition that he had hoped for.  

Interestingly, solutions for combatting alienation and empowering workers have been proposed that work within the system of capitalism, albeit less revolutionary. Worker cooperatives turn traditional corporate business models upside down. Rather than serving shareholders as in a corporate enterprise, worker cooperatives provide “service to its employees and its community” (CWCF, 2023). Every employee has only a single vote in organizational matters, dispersing power throughout the workers rather than management (CWCF, 2023). Sounds great, why isn’t everyone doing this? One of the biggest problems cooperatives face is raising capital (Lindenfeld & Wynn, 2012). While corporations can sell shares, a cooperative must rely on loans, which can be difficult to obtain, and the capital of its worker-owners who are not rich CEOs. Put simply, the corporation is much better at amassing large amounts of capital in a short period of time. This fact is not surprising because while the cooperative values the worker, the corporation values profit.

Some of us use psychological mind tricks to cope with the misery of our alienation; one example is the work-life balance. The concept denotes the relationship between our chosen lifestyle and the work that we do. Maintaining a balance is key to a healthy, happy life, or so they say. Curiously, it takes the idea of alienation for granted. Let’s assume that there is very little overlap between your job as a (insert drudgery here) and the things you aspire to do in life. Too much of one will negate the other. The concept of a work/life balance has a glaring implication: work is in opposition to life. Alienation is a given. The question becomes, how much of your life are you willing to sacrifice for work? The concept is an ideological product of capitalism in defence of dominant class interests as much as it is a submission to the inevitability of the alienation of the labourer in a capitalist society. 

There may be no solution to alienation, but to turn this thought on its head, alienation might not even be a problem. It is possible that Marx has gotten a few things wrong. One could easily argue that alienation is a universal and essential condition of humanity as we are, as Marx argues, beings who distinguish ourselves from nature by producing our means of subsistence. Therefore, humans are distinctly those beings that live apart from nature. In this case, there is nothing to be done; alienation becomes just another fact of our humanity, and we move on. You could also attack Marx’s suggestion that humanity is distinct from the natural world. One could argue that the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial is arbitrary and that humanity is still very much a part of the natural world, implying that we were never really alienated. The ground of Marx’s argument is, therefore, unstable. The question remains: was alienation just a clever bit of propaganda from Marx to rile up the masses and sow discontent, or is it a real condition of humanity? And if we are alienated, is there any hope of reunification?

References

CWCF. What is a worker co-op? – Canadian worker co-op federation. Canadian Worker Co-op Federation -. (2023, July 20). https://canadianworker.coop/about/what-is-a-worker-co-op/

Kulik, R. M. (n.d.). Eastern Bloc. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Eastern-bloc

Lindenfeld, Frank. & Wynn, Pamela. Why some worker co-ops succeed while others fail. Grassroots Economic Organizing. (2012.). https://geo.coop/story/why-some-worker-co-ops-succeed-while-others-fail

Wolff, J., & Leopold, D. (2020, December 21). Karl Marx. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/#TheoHist 

Marx, Karl. “Consciousness Derived from Material Conditions from The German Ideology”

The critical tradition, Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.406-409. Print

Marx, Karl. “The Alienation of Labor from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” The critical tradition, Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 400-405. Print

Richter, David. The Critical Tradition, Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s,

2007. 397. Print

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