Karl Marx and his Theory of Alienation

Many complain about alienation but can't quite put their finger on it.

When Henry Ford developed the assembly line, it was labor intensive, but the idea specialized jobs and a lot more production resulted than if people built entire cars on their own.
When Henry Ford developed the assembly line, it was labor intensive, but the idea specialized jobs and a lot more production resulted than if people built entire cars on their own.
Car assembly has come a long way, with robots doing much of the assembly line work. There are fewer laborers, but those that remain run the robots, each of which has replaced assembly line workers. This is part of the alienation of labor from product
Car assembly has come a long way, with robots doing much of the assembly line work. There are fewer laborers, but those that remain run the robots, each of which has replaced assembly line workers. This is part of the alienation of labor from product
Prior to WWII, inflation-devaluation in Germany was so great, that the production of script eventually could not keep up to demand. The money became so worthless that people were alienated (separated) from their own economy with disastrous results fo
Prior to WWII, inflation-devaluation in Germany was so great, that the production of script eventually could not keep up to demand. The money became so worthless that people were alienated (separated) from their own economy with disastrous results fo
In the contemporary world, we become alienated from one another due to differences related to work, skills and even language related to work to the point that we can hardly communicate with one another across disciplines.
In the contemporary world, we become alienated from one another due to differences related to work, skills and even language related to work to the point that we can hardly communicate with one another across disciplines.
Much to the chagrin of many, Marx defined the advances and subsequent ills of our society and its course long before things evolved to their current state with all the various kinds of alienation that result.
Much to the chagrin of many, Marx defined the advances and subsequent ills of our society and its course long before things evolved to their current state with all the various kinds of alienation that result.

The Theory of Alienation and How it Applies to Modern Society

The reality of alienation in the modern world is prevalent and can be seen everywhere. Alienation simply stated means separation from that which is desired or desirable. It floods the news channels and is seen in day to day life in our interactions with others. But Karl Marx's slant on the idea comes from his understanding in the context of capitalist modes of production for profit. It is this focus that allows us to see the source of alienation in its true context in society and how all other forms of alienation are rooted in this prime cause.

Marx identified the process of people finding useful things in nature and then taking them as they were freely available and changing these resources to something of greater use value by working on them to improve their usefulness. An example that Marx used frequently, is the taking of raw resources like cotton, wool and hemp and turning them into woven cloth. This was then taken and worked on to produce clothing. Other examples are mining for raw ore and then turning this into cutlery, ships, cars and railroads. Wood was cut from trees, converted into chips and lumber to make paper and houses. Plant seeds were sown and mature plants harvested for food and animals kept and raised for the same purpose. Some animals were trained to help in the production process. As long as people were in direct contact with nature and created all that was useful directly there from, there was no alienation. Everyone knew exactly where all that was necessary and useful for life came from. They had to work well with each other in order to survive. There was as a result, an awe and respect for nature and one another that dominated their stories and even their architecture. Alienation has as its roots, the production of surplus value that was over and above basic and immediate need. Surplus value meant wealth and it became a commodity when some realized that it could be used as exchange for something there was a shortage of. As surplus value allowed for the emergence of specialization, succeeding generations lost touch with the way things were done on the solid basis of material nature. Specialization in one direction means that other knowledge and ways of doing things are forgotten over successive generations and the specialist must depend on those who are still in contact with that reality to support them. But they must offer something in value in exchange. No one likes to work for someone else who contributes nothing; there must be some sort of fair exchange as we all have the same basic needs to live.

The production of surplus value meant that some people could now be freed up for other activities, such as defence against marauders, developing of the sciences such as sky watching-astrology-astronomy, alchemy, and the forerunner of modern chemistry, invention, engineering and all other activities that eventually wound up in the contemporary, complex industrial societies in the modern world. These co-exist with societies that are not as developed. The world's societies exist in a condition of combined and unequal development. This leads to alienation between cultures and the possibility exists for the unfolding of permanent revolution in less developed regions and societies. The evolution of society away from subsistence living meant that changes in the structure of society was inevitable. Marx was aware of this and described it in great detail. He was also aware of how the toiler became alienated from nature and the very thing he now works to produce. This has a lot to do with how the idea of money evolved to act as a medium of exchange in the form of what he called a universal commodity. The existence of a universal commodity meant the end of strict barter trading and made trade more fluid and dynamic. Barter was often cumbersome and inconvenient, so various items became the medium of the universal commodity. These were items like wampum beads, gold, precious and semi-precious stones, cattle, art objects and the like. As most of these had no real use value in of themselves, they became a tool-medium of exchange to obtain the desired real values that were necessary for life. This is how barter evolved in a qualitative leap. At the same time, one form of alienation crept in as the producer of value was not necessarily the one who consumed or used it.

Another aspect of the theory of alienation is the separation of the means of production from the ones who produce. This entailed a number of steps that ended in the contemporary world. The principle idea behind this is the acquisition of the means of production by an owner class, such as the aristocracy, a theocracy or the contemporary bourgeois industrialist and bankers. In nature there is no such thing as ownership. If anything is true, nature owns us and not we own nature. Somewhere in history and for some causative reason, some societies decided to act as marauders to other societies and appropriate what they had produced for themselves. Thus a question of ownership developed. The foundation idea is that whatever a person works to create becomes their property. They can then trade with others, or worse, have it taken by theft through force. With the development of states in ancient times, wars of conquest were fought for the means of production, whether land, fishing areas, mines, trees, slaves and so on. The concept of money existed alongside of this and became a focus of attention. As people were for one reason or another, removed from access to the means of production, they became alienated. This alienation continued through history to the present. Alienation became a real problem with the removal of the peasants from the land within the multitude of kingdoms and principalities then existent in the world. Land was expropriated for the purpose of growing cash crops for the landlords, prince, kings and the courts. This burgeoning business of cash crops was assisted by money, managed by emerging banks. Banks made loans with the idea that they would be paid back with interest and/or a service fee for the use of the money to assist in manufacturing expansion.

The landless peasants wound up in growing cities, where trade was done and manufacturing was concentrated and developing. Now lacking everything except their ability to labor, they were forced to work in order to survive and they worked for money, the universal commodity that increasingly became a fetish of adoration due to its seeming magical power to convert into anything else of use. Money of itself cannot be eaten of worn, nor can it keep you sheltered on its own. For the most part, what was produced in the manufacturing centers was a single commodity and the typical landless labourer became alienated from what they produced. As they did not own the means of production as given under royal or banker’s entitlement by defined laws, this also served to sever relations between the labourer and what was produced creating deeper alienation. It also severed direct relations between the owner of the means of production from the producer using those means but having no say in their use. Often they could not afford what they produced from the wages they received. Various developments in production beginning with the industrial revolution, assisted by the banks, allowed things like mechanically enhanced production and the assembly line. These developments constantly challenged those who laboured and there have been hundreds of years of cycles between nearly full employment, engineering changes, over-production, economic collapses, unemployment, re-education, employment and more changes and so on in complex repeated cycles. Each round creates further alienation.

Laborers have been encouraged to accept script money as wages and as script money is subject to devaluation and inflation, it becomes what is known as fictitious value, where the real value part decreases and the fictitious part increases over time. Initially script was backed by gold, but this "limitation" was removed. A classic example of expanding fictitious value is the collapse of the Reich mark in pre WWII Germany, where inflation was so intense that everyone had to have wheel barrows full of rapidly devaluing script money to buy a single loaf of bread. It was so bad toward the end that labor had to be paid every hour and then run out to spend it before it lost even more value. Thus most of what they had was fictitious value as a billion fold more was required to by the same items that cost a tiny fraction of the amount a year earlier. This is one of the realities, triggered both by the Versailles Treaty and depression that assisted Hitler into power. This devaluation was triggered by war reparation payments for war damages to Europe from WWI under the Versailles treaty.

We live in a culture of consumerism where things like planned obsolescence, boring, dirty, dangerous and underpaid work is the norm on a world scale. Our focus has been turned almost totally to the acquisition of money and this no longer backed by traditional value fetishes like gold. We live isolated from and alienated from nature. If we took away the mega-cities, the massive production facilities, our power, transportation, people for the most part would not know how to handle the new environment, which would be what's left of a ruined nature. Pol Pot did something like this with disastrous consequences for his people. He removed the whole population forcibly from the cities for his agrarian reform. People who have been trained virtually from the cradle to function in an industrial mega-city have little or no knowledge of agriculture, nature and skills to deal with these new realities. When the specific job one does disappears, such as going on now in the current cycle of economic collapse, the person who is thus alienated from the now gone job has to retrain or relearn the old ways.

Alienation also exists in the form that many of us have highly specialized functions on the assembly line and none can do the full job. To make a car requires a host of skills that no person is capable of learning them all in a single lifetime. Further, the amount of collected skills in each finished commodity prices it out of the immediate reach of most labourers. They then turn to the banks who exploit this with loans and credit for houses and cars, charged at interest. When the job is lost, the bank, that holds the legal title, claims the house or car and keeps all the payments made to that point. This forms one of the most prevalent forms of alienation of labor from what they make in modern society. What we see now is lots filled with the over-production of mega-factories that no one can afford to buy due to unemployment. Homes are lost to foreclosure and labourers who struggled so hard to gain title lose the house and all payments to the mortgage held by the bank and end up homeless. The bank then holds the empty houses that bring in no income and become “toxic assets”. Governments have to intervene to prevent further disaster, which often is not successful. Whole insurance companies and banks have collapsed due to this. This is modern alienation on a mass scale.

Banks and governments have another trick and that is to nationalize. The government takes ownership until times are good enough again to allow privatization. This cycle goes back and forth in lockstep to the health of the economy. In each round, the weaker businesses are destroyed and the assets are taken over by the survivors. The alienated laborer is left with the struggle for money, continual re-training, consumerism and the distractions aplenty of the modern world. Alienation from nature, the means of production, the product that is manufactured, from employment and by the atomization of the work force by skill and shift work defines the modern state of alienation.

Acknowledgement

This work is co-written by myself and W. F, Raymond, who provided the inspiration for this series.

Marx on alienation

Noam Chomsky on Class War

Marxism in literature and video

The Philosophy of Marx
The Philosophy of Marx

Marx's philosophy is outlined in this book. It covers the basic gamut of his thinking on questions of economy, philosophy, value and money, religion views and views on the family.

 

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Comments 18 comments

thevoice profile image

thevoice 6 years ago from carthage ill

quality highly detailed hub work sorry was sick thanks much


syzygyastro profile image

syzygyastro 6 years ago from Vancouver, Canada Author

Thanks for your review and comment. Get well soon!


f_hruz profile image

f_hruz 6 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

What do you think has been the problem why progressive social forces in Canada and the US are not using co-op business models a lot more these days to build a more equal and just socio-economic system to replace this disfunctional capitalist system?


syzygyastro profile image

syzygyastro 6 years ago from Vancouver, Canada Author

The main problem concerning co-op business has been the fact that they attempt to co-exist with capitalism. It is exactly the same problem with socialist regimes co-existing with capitalism. Mixed economies tend to get corrupted by capitalism. China that once prided itself as being a collectivist economy, even in it's bureaucratic degeneracy, has now drifted increasingly to capitalist modes. Though it is true that their economy has expanded while most others shrank around the world, this has been bought on sacrificing wages, safety, health and environmental concerns.

The "holy grail" of capitalism is profit, which is invested in expansion to generate more profit, reinvested and so on. The problem sets in when there is no more growing room.

People in Canada and the US have both tried the co-op business model and all its variants. However, since they attempted to function within capitalism, some people got involved with the idea that these could be co-opted to become another regular profit maker.

Essentially, it is a problem of corruption that seeps in to what started off as a good idea. What started off as an idea of equitable distribution, ended up being taken over, sometimes from the outside to become just another money maker. Once this happened, people dropped out and it folded. To the capitalist competition, this was the ideal result as the members were once more forced to rely on a system the hires cheap and sells dear to the very producers.

In the former Soviet Union, there accumulated a vast social wealth that was meant to be shared equally with the people who created it. However, since the days of Boris Yeltzen, the Soviet bureaucrats seized the opportunity to privatize the massive wealth and became overnight billionaires, leaving the people suddenly without resources of any type. One year under the new capitalism was worse than 70 years of Stalinism according to one documented account.

In the end, to obtain a more equitable and just socio-economic system, we are going to have to deal with corruption head on, both personal and collective in order to avoid a drift or collapse into capitalist forms. Capitalism is outmoded if for no other reason than the fact that it has now outgrown the planet and there is no more room for growth except through war and planned obsolescence. Both of these are hard on the planet, our only natural base of support.

The co-op model is an ideal, but it attempts to live in the real world of corruptible people and corrupting influences. We are going to also have to tackle the might of imperialist capitalism head on if real socio-economic justice is to be realized.


f_hruz profile image

f_hruz 6 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The North American labour movement is also not very interested, by the looks of it, in advancing the issue of greater worker participation in the management of businesses and corporations.


syzygyastro profile image

syzygyastro 6 years ago from Vancouver, Canada Author

Toiling as you know, is a full time job, as is administration. That is why we wound up with specialization. However, even here we have labour that works in production and labour that works in administration. If these groups could get together, they would find that they could still run business without the boss or manager. One could be appointed from the rank and file, subject to recall, in order to oversee the entire production.

Let's face it, there is a lazy man;s axiom; "If it's too difficult, it won't get done." Thus simple and easy is the best. Production need not change very much, except as to who runs it and who profits from that production.


David99999 5 years ago

Excellent essay! Fascinating review of one of the greatest thinkers of all time - Karl Marx. Kudos!


Shahid Bukhari profile image

Shahid Bukhari 5 years ago from My Awareness in Being.

Marx, Adam Smith, Herzl, Hitler ... are all dead ... so are their Theories, dead, or dying.

I comment, for the deplorable human cost, involved, in these insane Experiments ... For I would not waste my time, commenting on the ideas of these criminals.


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Great hub. You're very knowledgeable in the field of economics


htodd profile image

htodd 5 years ago from United States

Great post..nice


I.P. fom ex-YU 5 years ago

I graduated economics in former Yugoslavia in 1973. Willy- nilly i was extensively exposed to Marxism. in this piece u described more than just alienation. However you managed to successfully explain a number of Marx's concepts in either non-Marxist terminology or in plain English. This particularly goes for the tendency of the average profit rate to decrease eventually reaching the point where owners have no incentive to run the business. [Are we there yet? Time will tell.]


syzygyastro profile image

syzygyastro 5 years ago from Vancouver, Canada Author

This "Are we there yet" manifests periodically when a business of a certain type succeeds in becoming a monopoly. When it reaches the point where there is no more market to expand into, then there is no more profit possible. Now a few "solutions" have emerged. One of them is to sell bonds to the public at overinflated value. Another is to use planned obsolescence so that consumers are forced to by commodities due to new features or prematurely wearing out due to being under engineered. A third option is war to destroy what is present to clear the way for a "new market". These are some options, but they ultimately serve to further alienate.


Josak profile image

Josak 5 years ago from variable

Marx= without a doubt one of the greatest thinkers of all time.


PaulGoodman67 profile image

PaulGoodman67 5 years ago from Florida USA

Great piece of work. Marx did an interesting job with "alienation", although as "alienation" is or has psychological characteristics, I think Marx struggles at times to fit it neatly into his essentially, socio-economic theories.

The other thing that is striking is that alienation doesn't doesn't seem to reduce in socialist/communist countries, where owning the means of production is generally interpreted as state ownership.

The tribesman who carves his own canoe or trnket feels ownership and a sense of connection. The worker in a factory tends to have a sense of alientation whoever owns it.


syzygyastro profile image

syzygyastro 5 years ago from Vancouver, Canada Author

@ PaulGoodman67: What you say has a lot of truth in the context of production. One of the problems centers around the way things are produced on an assembly line where the average worker his little input into any product. There input tends to focus on a single piece of the complex assembly, leaving a feeling of alienation. This mode of production is rife in any developed industrial country. Further, with the advent of robotic assembly, the alienation intensifies in direct proportion to the level of automation.

Yet, as the machines do more and more and there is less and less work, our society cannot seem to make the shift away from a production mindset to a leisure society mindset. Instead of everyone doing less work, many are thrown off and a few find they are doing more work.


Nido sardar 4 years ago

Great n excellent work........;)


Jita 3 years ago

Thank u so much .


Ausseye 3 years ago

Hi AstroG(u)yWithSyz:

Buddy your site has got me revved , getting my gas into gear. Yes nature gives us nurture if we give it respect……only problem in the rest is that we must acknowledge sociopaths and psychopaths in our mix who are nature..less and impose an old world order of …me what’s best for me. A world apart we rest in spite of our ourselves. Love the intensity of your hub and it nature …….may the nurture be with you !!!

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