What is Alienation?
Karl Marx on how society fails us
The philosophy of Karl Marx (1818-1883) has been hugely influential throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. One of his best known concepts is the idea of “alienation” that describes how, in capitalist societies, human beings get estranged from their work and from themselves because of the way the production of goods is organised.
This article is part of The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
The influence of Marx
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher, economist and journalist who must surely be one of the most influential philosophers who ever lived.
Marx’s work, often barely recognisable, formed the basis for all socialist and communist regimes of the 20th and 21st centuries; but it also inspired thinkers, politicians and philosophers who were not politically Marxist or in any way radical, like Erich Fromm, Nelson Mandela and Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president. Juncker once said that Marx today “stands for things which he is not responsible for and which he didn’t cause because many of the things he wrote down were redrafted into the opposite” – and this is certainly true.
The problem with the work of Marx is also that it is huge and complex, and that Marx himself was always developing his theories further, often departing from positions that he had held in previous works. So when one wants to talk about what “Marx said,” one would have to specify exactly which period of Marx’s work one is referring to, and others could always dispute that Marx actually did mean what he wrote in this particular way.
This is also true of the concept of “alienation,” which we will talk about today. The ideas behind this concept come down to Marx from other philosophers, most notably Hegel, Feuerbach and, perhaps surprisingly, the English social contract theorist John Locke. Marx’s idea of alienation resurfaces much later in the work of Erich Fromm, but also in the works of French Existentialism (for example, Camus and Sartre), and we find echoes of Marx in Bertrand Russell and Richard Taylor, to name only a few.
A comprehensive overview of Erich Fromm’s philosophy of happiness. We discuss his life, his ideas and his main works, both in their historical context and how they are still relevant for us today.
The essence of capitalism
Marx’s work is large and complicated, but if we wanted to reduce Marx to one single idea, it would perhaps be this: The way a society works is determined by its economic structure.
We all can agree that a society of prehistoric hunter-gatherers is fundamentally different from the society of the European Middle Ages or today’s US society. But Marx would say that these are not only in some random way different, but that their differences in culture, values, ethics, even philosophy and science, can all be explained by their differences in how economic value is produced and distributed inside each society.
Particularly in capitalism (which includes most societies we live in today, even most of those that brand themselves “socialist” or “communist”), power lies in the possession of capital, of money. This financial power can be used to buy and possess the means of production of goods, and this, in Marx’s opinion, is the root of all evil.
Think of a little shoe-maker in his shop, where he is making shoes by hand. This is a viable way to make one’s living only as long as the shoe-maker can compete with others on the price of his shoes. This went well all through human history until the begin of industrialisation. When the first shoe-making factory came along, it made possible the production of hundreds of pairs of shoes in the same time that it took our shoe-maker to make one pair by hand. The factory owner now can sell the shoes cheaper and he can sell many more, so that even after the factory owner has paid off the machines and the wages of the factory workers, he still can make a sizeable profit. The individual shoe-maker cannot compete with the factory’s production and prices and will be forced to either open a factory himself, or to close down his business. But there is something that prevents him from opening his own factory – and this is the money required to start a factory, to buy the buildings and the machines and to hire the workers. In short, he lacks the capital. So capitalism, in this view, is a process in which the means of production (the shoe factory) stay out of the reach of most people, because they don’t have the capital to participate in them. The few who do have the capital can therefore control the rest of society.
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The little shoe-maker will have to close his shop and go to work as a worker in the factory, earning much less than he did before, and only contributing to the profit of the capitalist who owns the factory. Since the work he does now, standing in a factory assembly line, does not require any special skills, he is competing with many others for the low-paid factory job and he has no leverage that would enable him to demand higher wages or better employment conditions: the factory owner can always hire dozens of others to replace him if he makes any trouble.
And in these conditions, the prospect of the worker ever having enough capital to open his own factory, is now completely out of reach. What was a happy, free, individual owner of his own, fulfilling business, has now essentially become a slave to the factory owner, with no prospect of ever leaving that position.
The roots of alienation
But there is more to this story than just the economic troubles of the worker. The worker now is not any more involved fully in the creation of the product. The shoes that roll out of the factory line are not his shoes. He has not designed them, he has no power over quality control, the selection of materials, colours and shapes. The worker, as opposed to the small shoe-maker of old, does not own the result of his work and is not responsible for it. He is only a small cog in the big machine that produced those shoes.
Erich Fromm points out that capitalism, in order to work, requires a large population of identical consumers with identical taste.
Since the workers don’t own any means of production, they have no choice about what to do. They have to do whatever they are told by those who do own the means of production, and therefore they can themselves not find any real satisfaction in their work. Their work becomes a dull drudgery, a lifelong repetition of the same few unskilled movements, and all the credit for the final product (as well as all the profit) goes to someone else.
Here, Marx also makes an assumption about what is the “essence” of human beings. He thinks that men are not made for lifelong, dull, repetitive work. The essence of the human species is the drive to self-realisation, Marx thinks. And it is so tragically ironic that old Soviet-style or today’s Chinese and North Korean factories are probably the places that one would least associate with self-realisation and a happy, fulfilled life for the workers. In the name of Marxism, so-called communist states have created conditions that are diametrically opposed to everything that was important to Marx himself.
In his work “The German Ideology” (1845), Marx writes:
This limitation to one particular job, to one single sphere of activity, is, Marx thinks, opposed to how humans would naturally live their lives. Therefore, and now comes one of the most famous quotes from Marx, things would be different in communist society:
The self-realisation of man
So this is Marx’s utopia, and it is not very far removed from what Russell, Taylor and Fromm diagnose as the main problems with our societies. Whether we call it zest, creativity or the mode of being makes little difference: in all these cases, the point is that the human being must be provided with the means to lead a life that is varied, interesting, challenging and where we identify with the products and outcomes that our life’s work brings into the world – rather than being mere passive wheels in the big industrial machine of modern capitalism. According to Lanny Ace Thompson :
The four faces of alienation
Marx concludes from all this that alienation is itself a complex phenomenon that has four distinct dimensions: First, the worker becomes separated from his product in the way that we discussed before. Second, he is separated from his labour, which becomes itself a commodity, something that has a financial value, an exchange-value, but no intrinsic worth any more. Third, this estranges man from himself, from his own species-being, his natural instinct, which is to produce something that is an expression of himself, of his own values, his experience, his taste, his skill and his wisdom.
Instead, he is forced to produce something that is pushed out in thousands of identical, mechanically-produced copies, and that has no connection to his own being, knowledge and creativity. Finally, he is separated from others, both his co-workers, who are in the same position as him, and the rest of society, with whom he cannot any more interact meaningfully as a person. His own, real life becomes reduced to a few hours of daily leisure and two weeks of holiday time per year, with all the rest being lost to meaningless labour that wears him down and negates his essential humanity.
So that’s the end of our short overview of what Marx thought about alienation, and you can see how close this comes not only to much of today’s criticism of automation at work, but also to more general criticisms of the monotony and boredom of modern life, for example in Richard Taylor.
Richard Taylor on the Creative Life
Richard Taylor (1919–2003) thought that it’s creativity that makes us feel happy and fulfilled. According to Taylor, a life lived without exercising one’s creativity is a wasted life.
Return to The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
 Lanny Ace Thompson (1979). The Development of Marx’s Concept of Alienation: An Introduction. Mid-American Review of Sociology, 4(1), pp. 23-38.
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