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Marx's theory of alienation
Alienation is a process whereby people come to be divorced or isolated from the society around them. Karl Marx offers a specific, i.e. Marxist, account of alienation. He developed this account through his critiques of Hegel and the 'Young Hegelians', especially Ludwig Feuerbach.
It is normal to treat alienation as an undesirable condition for a human to be in. In Marxism, the polar opposite of alienation is the realisation of man's species-being. By this, Marxists mean the global attainment of a new level of human society in which we do not confront each other as atomised individuals alienated from each other, but as colleagues in a collective human enterprise.
Alienation in the labour process
Marx argues that alienation in capitalist societies is due to the fact that in work, we each contribute to the common wealth, but can only express this fundamentally social aspect of ourselves through a production system that is not social but privately owned, for which we function as instruments, not as social beings:
- "Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified manís essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another manís essential nature. ... Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature." [Comment on James Mill]
In this work, written in 1844, Marx attempts to show how alienation arises from private labour, from commodity production:
- "Let us review the various factors as seen in our supposition: My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life. Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life." [Comment on James Mill]
Since wage workers sell their labour power to earn a living, and the capitalist owns the labour process, the product of the workersí labour is alien to the wage worker. It is not his or her product but the product of the capitalist.
Marxist alienation is closely related to the idea of 'fetishism' - the projection of human powers onto inanimate objects. Marx's Fetishism of Commodities arises because of the obscuring of human relationships behind material interactions, detailed in the first chapter of Capital Vol I. Alienation both drives and is driven by this fetish.
Alienation can be seen a foundational claim in Marxist theory. Hegel described a succession of historic stages in the human 'Geist' or Spirit, by which that Spirit progresses towards perfect self-understanding and away from ignorance. In Marx's reaction to Hegel, these two idealist poles are replaced with materialist categories: spiritual ignorance becomes alienation, and the transcendent end of history becomes man's realisation of his species-being (i.e., our triumph over alienation; the establishment of an objectively better society).
In this light, it may be argued that Marxists who deny a moral component to their theory are mistaken: Marx relies on a foundational moral claim that alienation is bad.
Marx attributes alienation to the social organization specific to capitalism. Critics point out that mass society has its own dynamics, which may be distinct from capitalism. In other words, we may be alienated not as a consequence of selling our labour power to capitalists, but just because any massive, mobile, urban population will be constantly confronted with its own unfamiliarity.
More specifically, our lack of identification with our work may be due, not to the intermediation of the capitalist system of production and wage labour, but simply to the productivity demands made on us by any modern economy.
- Hegel's Philosophy of Right and Hegel's Theory of the Modern State by Shlomo Avineri.
- Lukacs' The Young Hegel and Origins of the Concept of Alienation by Istvan Meszaros.
- Ludwig Feuerbach at www.marxists.org
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