Marx: Capitalism and Alienation

Karl Marx (1818-83) grew up in Germany under the same conservative and oppressive conditions under which Kant and other German philosophers had to live. The Enlightenment had had some liberating effects on German life here and there, but most German principalities were still autocratic, and the idea of democracy was combated by all their rulers. The presence of police spies at major universities was a regular feature of German student life, and some students served long prison sentences for their political activism. As a law and philosophy student at the University of Berlin, Marx joined a political club that advocated political democracy. Very soon after receiving his doctorate, however, his ideas went beyond mere political reform. His future friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels introduced him to socialist and communist ideas, i. e., to ideas which progressed from mere political to social and economic reforms. For the rest of his life Marx dedicated himself to the project of radically restructuring modern industrial society along socialist and communist lines. In time he became the single most important theoretician and prominent leader of a growing international labor movement.

Since Marx participated in the Revolution of 1848 as an influential newspaper editor (in a revolution that was defeated by the monarchists, and the defeat of which led scores of liberal Europeans to emigrate to the United States and elsewhere), he found it preferable to leave the stifling and backward conditions of his fatherland and to go into exile. He spent the rest of his life in London, the powerful center of advanced capitalism and modern industry. As one of the organizers of the international working class movement he found that most labor radicals had all sorts of moral misgivings about capitalism, and a number of utopian ideas of an ideal society of the future, but no solid grasp of how a capitalist economy actually works. Marx also found that his own understanding of economic matters was far from complete. He therefore embarked on a two-decade long study of what was then called "Political Economy" (sometimes also dubbed "the dismal science").

Living with his family in great poverty, and maintaining himself as a free-lance writer and journalist, Marx walked almost daily to the British Museum to study the works of such classical economists as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus. He slowly wrote his main work, Capital, which was published in 1867. As he was personally much more interested in natural science, literature, philosophy, and mathematics than in economics, he resented most of the time he had to spend on the analysis of how money was made. As a classical humanist he thought that making a living or creating wealth should be nothing more than a means for the pursuit of more worthy things, not a serious end in itself.

It was not until the 20th century that scholars found an unpublished study by Marx, the so-called Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. This study consists of somewhat unorganized, difficult to read, but highly insightful notes which Marx jotted down while giving a first reading to the classical economists as a young man. The study has since gained prominence because in it Marx formulated more or less explicitly his Theory of Alienation--his analysis of how people are bound to become estranged from themselves and each other under the conditions of capitalist industrial production. This Theory of Alienation is often considered the philosophical underpinning for his later more technical critique of capitalism as an economic system.

In a nutshell Marx's Theory of Alienation is the contention that in modern industrial production under capitalist conditions workers will inevitably lose control of their lives by losing control over their work. Workers thus cease to be autonomous beings in any significant sense. Under pre-capitalist conditions a blacksmith, e.g., or a shoemaker would own his own shop, set his own hours, determine his own working conditions, shape his own product, and have some say in how his product is bartered or sold. His relationships with the people with whom he worked and dealt had a more or less personal character.

Under the conditions of modern factory production, by contrast, the average worker is not much more than a replaceable cog in a gigantic and impersonal production apparatus. Where armies of hired operatives perform monotonous and closely supervised tasks, workers have essentially lost control over the process of production, over the products which they produce, and over the relationships they have with each other. As a consequence they have become estranged from their very human nature, which Marx understood to be free and productive activity. Human beings cannot be human under these conditions, and for this reason the implication was obvious for Marx: Capitalism has to be abolished as much as any political oppression if a society’s emancipation is to be complete. Capitalism is just as incompatible with self-determination as absolute monarchy or any other autocratic system. But while an absolute monarchy limits people’s autonomy by controlling them in the sphere of politics, Capitalism does so by controlling their workplaces and their economic life. A society of truly free citizens, according to Marx, must therefor not only be a political, but also an economic and social democracy.

More specifically, real liberty does not exist unless workers effectively control their workplace, the products they produce, and the way they relate to each other. Workers are not fully emancipated until they work not in the way domesticated animals or robots work, but voluntarily and under their own direction. To accomplish this workers have to become the owners or controllers of their work places--the factories, railroads, hospitals, offices, and so forth on which they depend for their livelihood, and at which they spend the better parts of their days and lives. In contrast to earlier times, however, this ownership of the means of production cannot be individual anymore, since modern industrial production has irrevocably outgrown individual production in small shops; workers’ ownership of the means of production cannot but be communal or collective. Communities or societies as a whole have to make all major economic decisions in the way they make their major political decisions: by means of democratically elected legislatures and administrations.

The communal and democratic ownership and control of the major means of production, and thus of the economy as a whole, is Socialism. In light of the largely failed attempts to realize Socialism in the 20th century (attempts that for various reasons ended mostly in undemocratic, oppressive, and economically weak regimes), it is important to point out that Socialism without political democracy is not what Marx had in mind. A society without democratic rights and freely elected governments cannot be considered truly Socialist, even if the means of production are nationalized or communally owned, as one of the main purposes of the introduction of Socialism is an increase in the degree of freedom and self-determination, not a lessening of it. 20th century Communist Party dictatorships have, therefore, always been defended by their organizers as merely temporary arrangements, as a way of preparing the conditions for genuine popular democracies that were to develop in the future. As mentioned earlier in the chapter on Plato, there has always been a debate--often acrimonious--within the political Left concerning the wisdom of such temporary dictatorships. Democratically minded Socialists and Communists always thought that the temporary dictatorships inaugurated by Lenin had existed far too long to be of any benefit for workers or anyone else.

To turn to the details of Marx’ Theory of Alienation: The most basic form of workers’ alienation is their estrangement from the process of their work. An artist, unlike an industrial worker, typically works under his or her own direction; artists are in total control of their work. (That is why artists usually do not mind working long hours and even under adverse conditions, because their creative work is inherently meaningful, and an expression of their most personal desires and intuitions.) Even the typical medieval artisan, although more closely motivated by economic needs, usually worked as a relatively independent person--controlling his own shop and up to a point choosing his own projects.

In modern industry, however, workers typically do not work under their own direction. They are assembled in large factories or offices, and they work under the close supervision of a hierarchy of managers who do most of the important thinking for them. Planners and managers also divide complex work processes into simple, repetitive tasks which workers can perform in machine-like fashion (Adam Smith’s famous principle of “the division of labor"). The rhythm of work is dictated by the quasi-military discipline of assembly lines or other regimented production systems, and by the requirements of the machines to which the workers are assigned. Workers thus are mere extensions of their machines, rather than machines being the extensions of workers. (They are “the tools of their tools,” as Thoreau put it.) Although workers have to exert themselves, often strenuously, in operating their machines, they are, in an important sense, passive--mere objects. Modern factory work, although highly productive compared with medieval craftsmanship, has become dehumanized drudgery work.

Marx describes the situation in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 as follows:

In what, then, consists the alienation of labor? First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., that it does not belong to his nature, that therefore he does not realize himself in his work, that he denies himself in it, that he does not feel at ease in it, but rather unhappy, that he does not develop any free physical or mental energy, but rather mortifies his flesh and ruins his spirit. The worker, therefore, is only himself when he does not work, and in his work he feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor, therefore, is not voluntary, but forced--forced labor. It is not the gratification of a need, but only a means to gratify needs outside itself. Its alien nature shows itself clearly by the fact that work is shunned like the plague as soon as no physical or other kind of coercion exists.

Workers do not control the process of their work because they do not own the means of production--the factories or offices, the land, the machines, the raw material, the fuel, or anything else that is necessary to manufacture a product. The entrepreneur who owns these means also buys the labor power of the workers that he employs. The workers, therefore, do not only have to work under the direction of the entrepreneur, they also have to leave the finished product in the entrepreneur's possession. This latter fact establishes the second aspect of alienation: the workers' estrangement from the product of their work. Modern industrial production produces a great variety of impressive things, but these things have mostly little to do with the lives and needs of the workers who produce them. In Marx' words:

Labor, to be sure, produces marvelous things for the rich, but for the laborer it produces privation. It produces palaces for the wealthy, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but cripples the worker. It replaces work by machines, but it throws part of the workforce back to a barbarous kind of work, while turning others into machines. It produces sophistication, but for the workforce it produces feeble-mindedness and idiocy.

There are some things here to which one may want to object. For one thing, it may have been true in the 19th century that workers had to work under sweatshop conditions, that the workday lasted twelve to fourteen hours, that sometimes children were literally chained to machines to work, that workplace safety did not exist, that workers were deprived of education, and, most of all, that wages were so low that workers rarely could afford to buy the things they produced. But all this has since become very different. Capitalism in the 19th century may have been rather brutal, but the system has been reformed. Wages have increased, all sorts of benefits are provided by employers or social security systems, and today's industrial workers sometimes own and consume more material goods than even members of the upper classes of earlier ages. The old political cartoons that showed the Capitalists with top hats, coat tails, and big guts, while depicting workers and their bedraggled families as emaciated, subdued wrecks, are surely outdated. Today’s workers are not as exploited and miserable as Marx describes them, and the relation of Capital and Labor is not so antagonistic and bad as to justify such old concepts as “class struggle” or “class war.”

Such objections are not pointless. Due to the long and often arduous struggle of unions, as well as the vastly increased productivity of industrial labor, the economic position of many workers has significantly improved since the days of the Industrial Revolution. Yet, the following facts make Marx' over-all theory still relevant. First, while many workers today are indeed better off, many others are not. There are occasional sweat shop conditions even in countries like the United States, and there are many countries where the majority of workers are as relentlessly exploited today as they were during the Industrial Revolution in the United States or in Europe. It is only the physical remoteness of most low-wage countries from the centers of capitalist affluence that make the often grim exploitation of cheap labor invisible to us.

Second, the poverty of the working class to which Marx often refers can be understood in absolute and in relative terms. In absolute terms (in terms of how much workers have to eat, how much of a house they can afford, etc.) the condition of workers in highly developed countries has undoubtedly improved since the 19th century. In relative terms, however (in terms of what workers earn in comparison to what the owners of capital gain), the situation of workers has worsened. If an average entrepreneur or top manager once earned perhaps fifty times as much as any one of his workers, today's owners and managers typically earn hundreds of times more than the average employee. The general trend on which Marx had his eyes still prevails: The rich still get richer and more powerful, while the majority of ordinary employees can count themselves lucky if they have steady employment and more or less adequate benefits. In America in particular the income gap between the rich and the rest of society has been steadily widening. Since the imbalance of wealth usually translates into an imbalance of political power and influence as well, many capitalist countries tend to be, for all practical purposes, oligarchies rather than genuine democracies. Although their democratic institutions may be intact and functioning, their policies tend to be determined by wealthy elites much more than by citizens at large.

The fact that workers do not own what they produce has far-reaching implications. Marx approaches these implications by observing: "The object which labor produces, its product, confronts it as something alien, as a power which exists independently of the producer." In historical periods when labor was not as productive as in modern times it may have sounded like an exaggeration if someone had said that the laborer's product "confronts the laborer as something alien”--simply because the product does not belong to the worker anymore. Only in special cases, as when a feudal lord obliges his serfs to build a castle which is then used to keep down the very people who built it, does such language seem to be called for.

Marx' description, however, is quite appropriate in a period of capitalist production, i. e., in a period when the productivity of labor is incomparably greater than under feudalism or in slaveholding societies like ancient Greece or Rome. The decisive difference is that capitalist production for the first time in human history has made it possible to replace, for most practical purposes, the natural world with a human-made world. While before the Industrial Revolution human civilization could still be seen as just making inroads into vast areas of wilderness, the 19th century quickly moved toward a situation where no area of the planet could escape the effects of industrialization anymore. While until the Industrial Revolution significant numbers of people may have been able to live independently of the products and the influence of industry, this became increasingly impossible as ever greater areas of the planet were subjected to the administration and utilization of industrial powers. (The fate of the Plains Indians of North America provides a vivid illustration of this general process.) The most basic fact of capitalist industrialization is that it has created a world in which essentially all human beings are dependent on each other--and on the human-made environment which they have created with their increasingly productive labor. It is, thus, the entire human-made world which constitutes the product that "confronts" its makers as an "alien power."

Part of this human-made world is, of course the market and the business cycle with its often dramatic ups and downs. Business cycles, as well as other market dynamics, literally confront workers as forces beyond their control, as powers which often victimize them like floods, draughts, or epidemics. A worker's personal skill or willingness to work may not change at all, but a recession will throw him or her out of work regardless of his or her personal qualities and qualifications. Without any fault on his or her part, that is, a worker may suffer all sorts of hardships because of the impersonal forces of the market--the "invisible hand," as Adam Smith called them in his classic The Wealth of Nations. Yet, while workers are at the mercy of forces beyond their control, it is their own accumulated labor which creates and maintains these forces. For the market is not a creation of nature, but the result of human production and consciously organized institutions. Workers, in other words, decisively help to build the world on which they are so precariously dependent. They diligently construct and maintain the production apparatus that determines their lives, and not infrequently punishes them severely. ("Till now each worker's patient day/ Builds up the house of pain," as William Morris put it in his poem "No Master.")

The image of workers building and maintaining the machinery of their own oppression applies not just to the market and its dynamics, but to the modern world at large. The more people produce (the more they replace the natural world with an artificial one), the more they become dependent on what they produce. Today this has become even more obvious than it was during the lifetime of Marx. Armies of workers, busy and thoughtless like ants, build huge industrial conglomerates with their corresponding administrations-- conglomerates which produce overwhelming floods of merchandise, which in turn transform the surface of the earth with ever increasing speed. Side products of this enormous productivity are awesome amounts of toxic waste for which vast bureaucracies and costly disposal systems have to be developed, and terrifying stockpiles of bombs, missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction which could wipe out this whole civilization in a matter of days. And periodically people are victimized by these, their own products, without quite understanding how and why. They are vaguely aware of these present dangers, but they feel powerless, and they try to escape into comforting distractions. In their everyday lives the millions are bruised and mauled by the mega-trends and crises of their human-made world even in times of peace, and they have grown used to the idea that these forces are something like a fate, and not the result of human activities and decisions. Hence Marx' description:

All this results from the fact, that the worker relates to the product of his labor as an alien object. For it is clear ... that the alien, objective world will become the more powerful the more the worker produces; ... The alienation of the worker from his product does not only mean that his labor becomes an object, an external entity, but also that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien, that it turns into a power on its own confronting him, that the life which he has given to his product stands against him as something strange and hostile.

This sheds some more light on the meaning of the "poverty" that Marx discusses in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. The poverty to which he refers is only in part a poverty of material deprivation. To fully understand what Marx means one has to understand that Marx' highest value is not material consumption, but self-determination and self-realization. In Marx' philosophy high standards of living are not defined in terms of ever more food, drink, clothing, vehicles, appliances--in short, ever more things. A high standard of living rather means rich experiences, fully developed emotions, closeness to other people, a good education, and so forth. A person with very few possessions, but with an intensive life, comes much closer to Marx' idea of a happy human being than a well-paid worker who can afford to buy many consumer goods, but who is neither informed enough to understand the society in which he lives, nor has the motivation to shape, in cooperation with fellow-workers, his working conditions or the political system in which he lives. A worker who is overweight, who spends most of his time watching commercial television, whose main conversations with colleagues deal with the sports page, and who is too tired or apathetic to participate in the political process--such a worker is not well off in Marx' eyes, but a victim of a system that is ripe with alienation in every sense. Marx was not so much interested in what people might have, but in what they could be. He was interested in people being alive, informed, and in control of their destiny. Marx was an Enlightenment thinker in so far as he aimed at personal and human autonomy foremost. And he remained in line with Kant's and Fichte's thinking in that he expected workers to cease being the passive objects of history, and to become the active makers of their own fate.

The third aspect of the alienation of workers follows from the first two: As workers have no control over the process or the product of their production, because they do not own the means of production, they also have no significant control over how they relate to each other. They all are just an extension of the means of production that the owners of capital buy, and which the managers of industry employ to create and maximize profits. On a limited scale, workers sometimes organize themselves in labor unions, and not infrequently they practice solidarity in such situations as strikes. (The camaraderie that often develops in strike situations is a way of being human that usually has no place in the modern work world.) But even during strikes workers have to contend with strike breakers, indifferent fellow-workers, or working-class members who work as spies, hostile policemen, or "goons." For the over-all situation is such that workers always have to look at each other as potential competitors for scarce jobs. (Which is one reason why the managers of a capitalist industry often prefer high unemployment to a situation where they have to compete for scarce labor.) The competitive situation among workers sometimes emerges with particular bitterness when lay-offs lead to conflicts between workers with seniority and groups who seek a foothold in a particular industry. In the United States, e. g., white male workers repeatedly displayed considerable hostility toward women and black men, because in a situation of job scarcity any newcomers were perceived as a threat. Workers, instead of feeling solidarity and organizing on the basis of their common interests, found themselves pitched and played off against each other. The racism and sexism that could frequently be found among white male workers is one way in which the general alienation of workers from each other has found a concrete expression.

The fourth aspect of alienation is the estrangement of workers from their human nature in general, from their "species" nature, as Marx calls it. Potentially human beings produce freely and with deliberation. Free and thoughtful production would be the most authentic form of human existence. This does not only mean that human beings ought to be in charge of particular work processes, but also that they be able to produce without external necessity altogether--like artists who create for the pleasure of creating or for some other kind of inner satisfaction. Up to a point, of course, human beings have to produce to fulfill their material survival needs. But what distinguishes the human species is that human beings also produce what has no practical use, such as merely beautiful things. The horizon of human beings is wider than that of other animals: it transcends the limits of the survival needs of any particular species. It is, in this sense, "universal." And it is, according to Marx, only when human beings have become universal beings that they are authentically human.

None of this can be the case under conditions of capitalist industrial production, where most people have to labor for utilitarian purposes alone, and where few are free to work for themselves and under their own direction. In an economic landscape where the impersonal forces of the market dictate most aspects of human behavior, most people are unable to ever develop fully their human potential. Capitalism, in other words, is in conflict with much of human nature, and thus should be abolished as soon as that is a realistic possibility.


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