Karl Marx and His Theory of Alienation

Marx’s Theory of Alienation

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The concept of alienation has acquired a great significance in modern philosophy. With the aid of this concept, many philosophers, among whom Marx, Weber and Mannheim are three of the most notable, have theorized the modern man’s estrangement from himself and his own spirit. Different thinkers have found different causes for the process of growing alienation. Although the actual causes of alienation are complex and hard to define, the process itself is easy to recognize. The alienated individual loses control over his course of action, becomes distanced from his own spirit, and is immersed in a state of meaninglessness that comes from his lack of understanding of his own behavior and of the context in which he lives. The core of the theory of alienation thus describes a state in which the individual becomes severed both from his own spirit and from his environment. An alienated man loses control over his environment and this leads to a state of powerlessness and frustration. In the postmodern world, alienation has become a general phenomenon.

Karl Marx was among the first thinkers to observe the historical process of alienation that seemed to be growing more and more. The concept itself pervades most of his works, from the earliest to the last. According to him, the main cause of alienation is the political economy. Through his work, man can produce beautiful results. Nevertheless, the activity and the products that result from it are the ones that give rise to the feeling of estrangement. Man produces something through his labor, but the political economy does not recognize the direct relationship between man and the object of his work: “Political economy conceals the estrangement in the nature of labor by ignoring the direct relationship between the worker (labor) and production. It is true that labor produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker.”(Marx, 100) Thus, man obviously becomes alienated from his own work and implicitly from the world he lives in. Paradoxically, while labor is something positive and marvelous, the producer cannot enjoy it as he derives nothing from it and cannot control it.

Thus, in Marx’s view, it is the capitalist economy that actually forces the process of alienation on the individual. While upon its apparition capitalism had seemed an important advancement from the feudal system existent before it, Marx emphasizes that the feudal form of domination was in many respects less aggressive than the capitalist market. Thus, Marx’s intuition was that civilization moves inevitably towards alienation. In the feudal society, the individual did not have direct control over his production because he was the serf of a lord. Nevertheless, in a feudal society the domination is less oppressive than in the case of capitalism where the individual is submitted not to another individual like himself but to a system of abstract laws of the market place. In the capitalist society thus, the dominion is less concrete and less visible, and therefore apt to produce a more intense feeling of alienation and frustration. Critic Philip Kain observes moreover that the dominion of the market place is more insidious and more profound precisely because it affects the society as a whole: “In bourgeois society there is still oppression and domination — it just takes a different form […] the abstract laws of the market replace the feudal lord. Furthermore, the domination and oppression of the market, while it cannot be blamed on a person, is nevertheless worse than feudal domination precisely because it is not visible, not understood, and thus is more insidious, widespread, and penetrates social life more deeply.”(Kain, 131) Furthermore, in the capitalist society every individual has to compete against the others, transforming the society in a general and perpetual state of war. Thus, Marx concluded that the product is alienating to the worker precisely because it belongs to another man who is in his turn hostile.

Other factors in the capitalist system that contribute to the estrangement of the individual, such as the division of labor, the system of private property and the transformation of the human labor into a commodity. In the capitalist system, the product becomes an entity in itself, independent of and unrelated to his producer. Thus, the individual who produces cannot actualize himself in his own work and thus becomes alienated. The result of this is that the man is gradually estranged from his own product, from himself, and then even from the other men and from his own species. As Marx sees it, the relationship between the individual and the product of his work is the first cause of alienation.

The object produced becomes thus displaced: “In the sphere of political economy, this realization of labor appears as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.”(Marx, 105) the product does not belong to its producer, but to the capital. Thus, as Marx notes, the more an individual produces, the less belongs to him of this production: “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.”(Marx, 106) There is an unnatural relationship between the object and the individual that produces it. This happens because of the nature of the capitalist system itself: the economical power increases proportionally with the exertion of the individual into his work: “All these consequences are contained in this characteristic, that the worker is related to the product of labour as to an alien object. The more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, and the less they belong to him.”(Marx, 107) the capitalist market thus grows as a great objective reality while the individual is less and less important.

Thus, in Marx’s view, man becomes alienated because he gradually loses control over his own work. His helplessness translates as the impossibility of experiencing himself as an agent, an acting entity. Moreover, the worker is actually a slave of the object he himself produces through labor: “The worker becomes a slave of his object; firstly, in that he receives an object of labor, i.e., he receives work, and, secondly, in that he receives means of subsistence.”(Marx, 111) by producing something, the individual gains the means of his necessary subsistence. Thus, undoubtedly, the individual becomes a slave to his own work. The modern political economy places an utmost significance on productivity and almost none on the individual, who is only repaid materially for his work. In the capitalist society thus, labor power is nothing more than a commodity which has to be bought and sold on the market, without any interest in the individual who becomes thus anonymous and unimportant. Thus, the more close to perfection the object is, the more far from it the laborer who becomes only its slave.

Furthermore, Marx considered that it is not only the product of labor as such that becomes an alienating factor for man, but the very activity of labor as such: “But estrangement manifests itself not only in the result, but also in the act of production, within the activity of production itself. How could the product of the worker’s activity confront him as something alien if it were not for the fact that in the act of production he was estranging himself from himself?”(Marx, 113) Labor is, according to Marx, the thing that delimitates man from the other animals. Productivity is a human specific activity. While animals do produce in their own way by constructing nests and dwellings for example, they only produce for their own immediate needs: “It is true that animals also produce. They build nests and dwellings, 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.”(Marx, 121) Animal production is limited and instinctual, devoid of any creativity, whereas human labor is performed even outside the immediate needs.

Marx’s conclusion is thus that man is acting freely in his animal function, while he is constrained by the laws of the capitalist market precisely in his human functions: “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.”(Marx, 122) Man is thus estranged from his own species and from nature as well. The individual life of man is practically absent, replaced by the animal life and by man’s service to capitalism: “Estranged labor not only (1) estranges nature from man and (2) estranges man from himself, from his own function, from his vital activity; because of this, it also estranges man from his species. It turns his species-life into a means for his individual life. Firstly, it estranges species-life and individual life, and, secondly, it turns the latter, in its abstract form, into the purpose of the former, also in its abstract and estranged form.”(Marx, 116) the individual life becomes thus the purpose of the species life of man, as Marx contends. Capitalism appears as an abstract, alienating force that deprives the individual of his personal life and transforms him into a mere tool for productivity.

Other philosophers have expounded on Marx’s theory of alienation, extending his commentaries and conclusions. Max Weber for instance believed that alienation is rather a result not so much of the economical conditions of modern life, but of a complex system of social and political conditions of modern life. According to Weber, the world moves towards a progressive rationalization of the social and political systems. As the institutions and the systems become increasingly complex, the world becomes more and more inhuman and impersonal. It is through the increasing “calculability” that pervades the modern world that the purely personal completely disappears from the scene: “The calculability of decision-making] and with it its appropriateness for capitalism.. [is] the more fully realized the more bureaucracy “depersonalizes” itself, i.e., the more completely it succeeds in achieving the exclusion of love, hatred, and every purely personal, especially irrational and incalculable, feeling from the execution of official tasks.”(Weber, 52) Weber thus explicitly relies in his work on Marx’s previous theory of alienation of the individual through the forces of the social and political system.

Significantly, Weber continues Marx’s theory and develops it. Similarly to Marx, Weber emphasizes that the old type ruler was sometimes tyrannical but also sometimes good natured and compassionate. In both cases, the old-type ruler is more human and personal in all his reactions, as opposed to the modern apparatus which is emotionally detached: “In the place of the old-type ruler who is moved by sympathy, favor, grace, and gratitude, modern culture requires for its sustaining external apparatus the emotionally detached, and hence rigorously “professional” expert.”(Weber, 53) the modern world is thus alienating through its own impersonal nature.

Another philosopher who reopened Marx’s problematic theory of alienation for discussion was Karl Mannheim. Mannheim’s work incorporates the most important elements taken from both Marx’s and Weber’s theories. The same idea that pervades Marx’s work also makes the core of Mannheim’s theory. According to Mannheim, man defines his creativity through his work. At the same time however, the work he produces acquires independency from its own creator and becomes governed by its own laws, while the producer becomes more and more estranged. Mannheim also takes the theory one step further by incorporating culture into his system. In his view, culture, similarly to labor, becomes alienated from the individual by gaining independence and a status of its own. Thus, the individual is displaced and estranged from his own productions.

In the light of the conclusions presented so far, I think that the theory of alienation as constructed by Marx is reflected in the conditions of modern life. It is obvious that man has moved away from the things that kept him in close contact with nature and with the specifics of humanity. The modern social, economical and political systems make this fact inevitable. The individual is now defined by a large number of documents that have to be registered and he exists merely as a social record. Moreover, the individual is caught in such a complicated apparatus of laws and rules, that his freedom, despite the democratic system, becomes extraordinarily limited. Even more than in Marx’s time, man has now become an instrument of the complicated social system.

Also, through his labor or his employment, man is obviously cut from his own activity. While a man does have a function in the modern system, he does not have direct access to the results of own work. The examples for alienation provided by the modern society are almost inexhaustible: the social and economical system is now more complicated than ever. Any work performed by an individual is now only a small part of a huge system that serves all kinds of interests. Man cannot exist as an individual outside society, since he is compelled to live and work in a certain way. More than the fact that the individual is now subjected to more and more laws, the laws are moreover abstract and impersonal and a man cannot get a personal response to any of his actions.

Therefore, I think that Marx’s theory of alienation is even more valid at present than it was for the contemporary situation that he tried to describe. Men are not only slaves of their own work, but there are inevitably particles in a large social and political system. Although man does have freedom to move inside the system, he has very little or no liberty outside it. In this context, man is more and more alienated from himself and his own surroundings. The modern world is a fascinating web created by man himself, but at present, man has become a peon in his own creation.

Works Cited

Kain, Philip J. “Marx, housework, and alienation.” Hypatia 8.n1 (Wntr 1993): 121(24).

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. New York: Prometheus Books, 1988.

The Theory of Alienation. http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/a/l.htm#alienation

Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. New York: Free Press, 1997.