Friday, January 15, 2016

marx on alienation

What did Marx mean by alienation and is it still relevant?

When using the word alienation, Marx was talking about the fundamental social structures of the capitalist system. He was not talking about psychological alienation. In saying that I would not discount the concept of psychological alienation in connection with Marx's analysis. Rather, it is not the starting point of comprehension of what Marx was on about.

Marx regarded the contradiction between private property (the social class who owns the means of production) and alienated labour (the social class who has no option but to work to earn money to maintain themselves) as the fundamental issue of the capitalist era. Fundamental here means the main underlying contradiction, the one that can't be resolved by capitalism. It is not the same as the principal contradiction. The principal contradiction is the one which manifests itself most sharply in any particular era. I won't attempt to say what the principal contradiction is in the world today but I will say that if the post 2008 economic situation continues to deteriorate then the principal contradiction may become aligned with the fundamental contradiction.

In this essay I'm focusing on Marx's 1844 writings (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, particularly the section on Estranged Labour)

Christopher Arthur summarises Marx's 1844 writings as follows:
“Because the worker has no property in the means of production his labour-power is excluded from the instrument and object of production owned by another; his labour realizes itself therefore only through the wage-contract whereby it is alienated to the master and works in his behalf.”
- dialectics-of-labour/chapter-01
Marx discusses the nature of alienated work under capitalism, from a four fold perspective:(1) alienation from the products of labour; (2) alienation from his own labour; (3) alienation from fellow men and (4) alienation from his own species.

Capitalism has been around for 150 years since Marx wrote and has adapted in that time. Workers have struggled successfully to improve their working conditions through trade union and other struggles. The productive forces have developed tremendously and many of the most difficult jobs are now less difficult because of machines assisting the work. The education system has developed and expanded world wide to keep up with the requirements of the more developed productive forces. Many of the worst jobs have been exported to the developing countries. Knowledge industry and service industry type jobs have replaced many jobs in the industrial and agricultural sectors. A useful book, which I read years ago discussing the shift from industrial to service industry work was Sleepers, Wake! Technology and the Future of Work by Barry Jones, but obviously that analysis needs to be updated and developed.

It seems that Marx didn't anticipate the resilience and longevity of capitalism. I feel that in some places he exaggerates how bad things are for the worker. Capitalism has been adaptable in order to survive. Capitalism is a flexible and adaptable system but within limits. The bottom line is that it must continue to find a way to extract surplus value. Capitalism can't compromise on that issue.

Given these changes I will make some qualifying comments on Christopher Arthur's summary of Marx's 1844 document about the nature of work:
“The labourer treats his labour as a commodity; as a consequence he has no interest in the work itself but only in the wage; labour does not belong to itself but to private property.”
It is true that most people are driven to work to earn money. However, given Marx's general attitude to the central importance of work (aka labour, activity) in human development it is strange that he asserts that the worker has no interest in the work itself

This is too extreme. In another place (Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875) Marx, anticipating communism, describes labour as life's prime want. IMO it is simply not possible for the boss-worker alienated relationship to comprehensively destroy all interest in the work itself. Marx's ironic statement that capitalism creates it own grave diggers (Communist Manifesto, 1848), a proletariat that has learnt to run the system by building it, is far closer to the mark.
“... the worker ... executes plans he does not form; he objectifies himself in his product only to have it taken from him”
This is correct for most factory work and low skill jobs but when it comes to the knowledge industry (eg. engineers, computer programmers, some aspects of teaching) the workers are significantly involved in the planning
“he produces palaces but lives in hovels; his labour creates beauty but deforms himself ...”
Today, many workers live in nice homes. Home ownership is a problematic aspiration of the capitalist system. Nice if you can get it but it is going to take a significant proportion of your working life to attain it.

Does the worker deform himself? In the physical or bodily sense this is another exaggeration, although true in the cases where difficult manual work and industrial accidents still occur. In the mental sense it is true in the sense that workers have to adapt their lives to the needs of their jobs – eg. long hours, division of labour – but there are other aspects of work that are enjoyable and enriching. I think the key issue here in interpreting Marx about division of labour is that even for relatively good jobs the emphasis in training is on technical skills and the education system is not designed to develop critical, broad ranging thinkers.
“ … the more intelligence is embodied in the design of the factory system the more machine-like and stupefying the routine of work, so much so that the labourer faces machinery as a competitor for his place”
It is true that the dead labour in machines (aka fixed capital) progressively replaces living labour. This is part of the evolutionary dynamic of capitalism. Marx anticipated this, see this passage from the Grundrisse (1857-61) [“The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it” source]. The intelligence also becomes part of the skilled workforce (managers, scientists, engineers, computer programmers). It remains a living thing, not just embodied in the design of the factory system.
“at work he does not feel at home; he feels himself only when he is not working; his work is not voluntary therefore, but is forced labour; in it the worker belongs not to himself but to another”
Many workers will testify that they would rather be at home than at work but nevertheless many workers also feel that being at work broadens and enriches them in significant ways.

If we focus on factory work (not knowledge work) for a minute it is relatively easy to see that in such work the worker is alienated from the product he makes but does not own. Marx goes onto argue that since the product is alien then the labour process which made the product must also be alien. He calls this self-estrangement. Marx sees labour or work or activity, when it is not alienated, as life itself, since productive activity between man and nature is human essence.

So, the factory worker feels external or outside or not at home with this labour process. What would it take for this feeling to be reversed? Well, say the worker is at home doing home improvements or building a cubby for their child or researching a favourite topic on the internet. This is more like life activity being internal to the worker. I would argue that this is an experience that knowledge workers obtain sometimes at work, which leads to the “I like my job” feeling.

The main thing I liked about my teaching job was that ability to research different innovative approaches that helped me teach concepts I felt were useful more effectively to my students. When doing that I felt inside the work. This approach to internalisation of development was expressed through the constructionist learning theory developed by Seymour Papert. He even described the turtle in turtle geometry as an object to think with, conveying the internalisation of the learning process. But this bottom up learning is only happening in a few classrooms controlled by innovative teachers. It hasn't been taken up by the education system as a whole, which favours more structured top down approaches, which have a legitimate place in learning theory and practice, as well.

Capitalism leads to the dominance of things over people. Things develop personalities and workers lose their personalities, become mere wage plugs. Capital and capitalists (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, James Packer, Twiggy Forest) have individuality, their wealth or things enables them to express it (the personification of capital), whilst the worker is always struggling to keep afloat, pay off the mortage. Veblen pointed out the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption. Dead labour dominates living labour. The worker becomes an abstract individual (impoverished, pared down). The world of objects (property) becomes massive and powerful relative to the worker's world. In the face of the massive development of productive forces it is easy for workers to feel powerless. But it is the labour of the working class which has created this massive world of things.

Marx wants to transform the whole work experience so that all workers can become fully alive at work. If the worker feels at one with society, rather then having to compete to earn money to stay alive, then even mundane or banal jobs, jobs which have to be done, would feel useful rather than alienating.

It follows on from product ownership (previous section) that workers will have anxious, insecure, alien and hostile relations with the capitalist and landlord. The capitalist is powerful and alien compared to the worker.

Our self conscious species life is potentially rich. We produce a great range of things including beautiful things and things which can be used later. But the potential to live to the full extent of our species being is destroyed because capitalists appropriate the product of our labour.

Capitalism dissolves the world into competitive atomistic individuals rather than the cooperative, harmonious and joyful species that we could be.

Capitalists are alienated too! They cannot have normal human relations with the worker. They are dominated by the social conditions of the system, including competition. They are driven by the desire to amass profits. They are not directly involved in productive activity themselves. They become greedy (for money because they don't produce themselves), cruel and hypocritical.


Taking a step back we can view work as a mediation between man and nature. Christopher Arthur puts it like this:
“(Marx) ... speaks of nature as 'man's inorganic body' and says that 'he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die ... for man is a part of nature'. On the other hand, he says that 'it is in his fashioning of the objective world that man really proves himself; through such productive activity 'nature appears as his work and his reality . . . and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself created'; this process is characterized as 'objectification' (Vergegenständlichung) ...

(objectification means the making of a product or object)

In truth, man is neither passively dependent upon nature, nor is he able to create his world from nothing. It is rather the case that through industry, productive activity, a dynamic relationship between man and nature is established in which both poles are transformed ...”
The word mediation is used in the sense of an extended process between man and nature which determines the nature of change of man and society. Contrast mediation with immediate. The view that man is in some sort of passive, contemplative relationship with nature or, the opposite view that man can somehow overthrow nature both suggest an immediate, short term connection rather than a mutually transforming mediation. Rather, man transforms nature, a process which requires both struggle and unity, and in the process transforms himself.

This establishes Marx's fundamental ontology, that human essence arises, is created, through the process of productive activity which mediates between man and nature. This provides a thematic starting point for the outlook of historical materialism, that historical development can be understood through the working through of this process of productive activity which mediates between man and nature.

Christopher Arthur refers to Istávan Mészáros's analysis of first order and second order mediations. The mediation of productive activity between man and nature is a fundamental first order mediation which applies historically to all societies. Compare this with capitalist society where:
“... in the present economic conditions we find that productive activity itself is mediated through the division of labour, private property, exchange, wages, in sum a system of estrangement in which productive activity loses itself and falls under the sway of an alien power. Istávan Mészáros has termed this 'a set of second-order mediations . . . i.e. a historically specific mediation of the ontologically fundamental self-mediation of man with nature” (emphasis added)

I have explained what Marx meant by alienation, a fourfold analysis [(1) alienation from the products of labour; (2) alienation from his own labour; (3) alienation from fellow men and (4) alienation from his own species] and contrasted his meaning with the more fashionable interpretation today of psychological alienation. Marx's meaning of alienation needs to be contrasted with his vision of communism where the mediation of productive activity between man and nature (human essence) is not contaminated by the social forms of capitalism (division of labour, private property, exchange, wages).

I have touched on technological change and the changing nature of work and how that requires Marx's class analysis to be updated but by no means negates its fundamental importance.

I'll return to these topics in subsequent blogs.

update (Jan 16):
Marx's solution to the problems of capitalism is for the proletariat to seize political power, through revolution, and to proceed to create communism, through a transitional period of socialism, or dictatorship of the proletariat over the capitalist class.

Now, obviously the proletariat, the 99%, could achieve this against the capitalist class, the 1%, if there was clarity, unity and good leadership to attain such a goal. The reason we don't have socialism is for various reasons the proletariat doesn't strongly desire socialism.

What I will do here is attempt a rough preliminary analysis, in terms of the ideas discussed by Marx, of the push factors from capitalism to communism and contrast them with the pull factors which prevent the proletariat from embracing that change.

In favour of the transition from capitalism to communism: The iniquitous social forms of wage labour, private property, division of labour and exchange would be eliminated and replaced with a not alienated mediation of productive activity between man and nature.

Factors impeding the transition from capitalism to communism: In order to support the Marxist revolution you need to understand what it is. That requires some slow, deep thinking, reading and analysis. Most workers are too busy working long hours to pay off the mortgage, keeping afloat in a competitive system. Our education system trains specialists (a division of labour) and not whole people who reflect on wide ranging social issues. Overall, the education system is designed to reproduce existing class relations rather than overthrow them. Capitalist culture tends to distract or entertain people in a whole range of ways (from David Bowie to Buddhism to Foxtel to drugs). The disenfranchised are given welfare, enough to survive, which keeps them distracted and so that threat to the system has been manageable up until now.

Alternatively, it could be argued that Marx was wrong. I'm interested in those arguments and have at times adopted them myself. But I now suspect it is more the case that Marx has not been understood or only partially understood or that some "Marxist" leaders have been too dogmatic, one sided and have ended up offering bad leadership.


Arthur, Christopher. Dialectics of Labour: Marx and his Relation to Hegel, Ch 1

Jones, Barry. Sleepers, Wake! Technology and the Future of Work

Marx, Karl
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, particularly the section on Estranged Labour,

Communist Manifesto

Critique of the Gotha Programme

Grundrisse (section)

No comments: