What is alienation?

When Karl Marx published “The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” he set out to outline the process by which the capitalist mode of production exploits workers. He called this phenomenon alienation, meaning that working people put everything into their jobs but get little in return. Marx explained that, under capitalism, workers are alienated in the following three ways: within the production process itself; from the objects produced by their labor; from nature and from the rest of humanity.

Alienation from the production process

For most of the working class, labor is nothing more than a means for physical survival. The labor process—working a job—is not educational or enriching in any way. Marx refers to this process as “the sacrifice of vitality.” This means workers most often hate their jobs, but have to do them anyway. Few blue-collar or white-collar workers could make the argument that they greatly benefit or prosper from their 9-to-5 jobs. Each worker’s time, energy and intellect is focused solely on profit-making for whoever owns the business. As Marx noted:

“He who does not produce (that is, the owner) has dominion over production and over the product.”

For example, the wait staff at a restaurant—plus cooks, busboys, cleaners, hosts, bouncers—give much of their energy so that the business will continue to operate. Typically, they dedicate 40 to 60 hours per week to the restaurant, which they could otherwise spend with their families or doing something fun and enriching. But they need to get paid, so they work instead. At the end of the week, each workers earns a contemptibly meager check that is gobbled up by landlords and other parasitic bill-collectors. The workers end up with very little left over.

Alienation from the objects produced

The working class constantly produces, but the goods and services produced belong only to the owners of their labor. All of the aching bones, headaches, sweat, mental anguish, injuries, repetition and stress help generate commodities that reap benefits for somebody else. Workers have no control over the goods. They become alien to the worker once they are produced.

Marx commented on this reality:

“While the worker’s activity is torment to him, to another [the capitalist] it is his delight and his life’s joy. … The wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production.”

The owner gets richer at the expense of his or her employees. The quicker the laborer’s hands move to clean or cook, the more wealth is produced for the rich. In the case of a busy urban restaurant, kitchen workers produce $20 plates of gourmet food often at lower than minimum wage. The fact that workers’ labor goes toward the accumulation of the owner’s wealth while workers receive a pittance in return is a fundamental feature of capitalism.

Alienation from nature and humanity

The third form of alienation Marx analyzes is the most complex and pervasive—the alienation of workers from their social environment. Consumed by the daily quest for survival and individual ascension in the workforce and society, it is easy for anyone to feel isolated. Capitalism reduces workers to mere appendages of the machinery they operate.

The ruling institutions also cause many workers to seek to attain a higher status in society and to adopt the views or outlook of the very people who oppress them. This effect is called “false consciousness.” The vast majority of workers will never become capitalists or even wealthy. Most will barely be able to survive no matter how hard they work.

Alienation is built into this system. It is countered when workers fight together. Instead of being atomized individuals just seeking by in a society that exploits them, they can come together as a collective force. When workers struggle together, they find a new, non-alienating bond. This bond arises in the fight against the existing social order.

It is in the struggle against exploitation that false consciousness can be replaced by revolutionary class consciousness. Class consciousness is a byproduct of struggle. It is not spiritual or metaphysical, it is real. It can arise when people take action together to overcome oppression. Then they are no longer just individuals, they are part of a powerful, collective movement for revolutionary change.

Class consciousness can develop spontaneously during the course of intense class battles. Revolutionary class consciousness, however, can be achieved on a mass basis only by the successful intervention of a revolutionary socialist party in the spontaneous movement against oppression.

The way forward, the only way to eliminate the core contradictions facing workers—including the alienation that is intrinsic in capitalist society—is the elevation of the working class so that it can achieve political supremacy in society. That process is known as the socialist revolution.

Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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