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The alienation of the laborer

Updated on July 11, 2017

The Worker


According to the definition given by Marx, and also supported by Kai, labor alienation is the term used to refer to the estrangement that occurs when the worked (laborer) relates to the work of work as an object that is alien and even hostile to him or herself. In this case, the laborer invests his life, efforts and energy in the object (product), but due to the fact a that he/she does not own the fruit of his labor (having no knowledge about it, or being able to afford it among other reasons) he ends up being estranged regardless of how much he/she is involved in producing. In labor alienation therefore, everything that the worker contribute to in the world outside him (particularly in the workplace) he is unable to possess. As Kai defines it, alienation is the process by which human beings are separated or disconnected from their natural moorings (attachments) in the world as a result of given work arrangements that are alien to them (Zi-Ling, 2015). For instance, the introduction of machines means that individuals could no longer use their skills and knowledge to produce given products, but rather have to interact with machines to achieve this. As a result, the machine contributes to this alienation.


Human beings/workers can be alienated in a number of ways. These include;

Loosing contact with products of their labor

Marx was particularly adamant on this point, which he attributed to capitalism. When an individual, say a woman or mother knits a given piece of clothing that she uses in her house, it becomes an extension of the women due to the fact that she has put her effort, time and skills into it, ultimately turning in to a useable and valuable item. It is the same case with regards to any other job where the worker gets to benefit from their own labor. Figuratively, one has poured him or herself in the work, giving life to it (making it valuable for some use). However, when such products/items of their labor is taken away from them and stored away from them to be sold or used by other people who are considered more worthy of the product/item, then the qualities invested in the objects are lost to them (Karl, 1906). As a result, the worker has no real passion towards producing the products, but has to continue doing this on a daily basis in order to receive a salary, and support himself and his family. They give their strength, energy and sweat on a these tasks in order to survive. However, their skills, talents and passions are lost in the work, making them what Kai describes as incomplete human beings who face life with dulled moral reflexes, blurred perceptions as well as impaired ability to think.

In this case, people are alienated from produce of their labor, and only continue working in order to receive wages from such work. However, they do not particularly get to use such products.

Alienated when they lose their involvement

The second way in which people can be alienated is where workers may get alienated by losing their involvement in the activity of working itself. As a result, the worker does not get the experience of a meaningful act of creation. A good example of this is where machines tend to dominate much of the work to an extent that the worker feels distant. In this case, the worker only players a limited role such as moving given packages or simply feeding the machine so that it can carry out all the other functions. In this case, steps to take in given tasks are planned and presented by a given planner in some distant office, away from the rest of the workers, and carried out as directed by the worker, and particularly the manual workers. In such cases, the worker has no significant knowledge about the processes involved, but simply follows a given set of rules that have been choreographed by a planner in order to complete given tasks. Workers have to complete given task within a given period in a day. The processes of work are repeated each day the worker punches in until he/she punches out. In most cases, there is no passion for the job, which after some time is only seen as a means to an end. No real creativity is directed to the workplace given that the processes are the same every other day. This does not in the least nourish the spirit of the worker, but rather reduce their ability to implement and use their own ideas, and thus put to use their creativity. In this case, the worker only gets to work within given sets of rules, and thus does not have to use their own skills, talents and ideas and experience the joy of seeing them produce fruits (Zi-Ling, 2015).

Estrangement from their peers, and fellow human beings

It is a fact that capitalism has pushed workers in to machine like status, given that they are always in competition with others, trying to out- do each other. These competition and long working hours means that they have less and less time to each other, which significantly limits the development of feelings of friendship and community. With long hours at work, and little time to rest before they can get back to work, they have little time for each other. In this case, so much energy is used at the workplace that individuals are incapable of authentic relationships with others.

Separation from their nature as human beings

Being highly focused on earnings and getting more money in order to stay alive (survive), workers gradually cease being active as part of nature. They no longer spend time enjoying life, but rather become alienated from others and even themselves, acting more like machines. It is common to hear an older parent complain that his/her child has become too pre- occupied with work to an extent that they have no time for others.



Alienation in today's workplace

With high competition among the young, lack of employment opportunities and failing economics, it is highly evident that the concept of alienation is relevant for understanding the workplace today. Although major companies such as Google and Apple are allowing workers/employees some amount of time to concentrate on their own personal projects, workers are still highly focused on success and more financial gains that most their energy and life goes to their job. This significantly alienates them from their peers and loved ones. One of the best examples of such a case is Steve Jobs (Karl, 1906). Known as one of the most innovative entrepreneurs to have ever lived, Jobs was largely focused on success and being the best in the industry that he found it difficult to make time for his wife and daughter. His obsession to succeed drove him to be particularly strict and harsh towards his employees to an extent that some would simply quit. The other good example is with McDonald’s where about two thirds of the workers in the United States are under the age of 20. These teenagers open the stores early in the morning, close them late in to the night, keeping them going through out these period. Some of the managers and assistant managers are also young individuals, who are preferred due to the fact that they can be easily controlled and are also less expensive to high. It s a fact that McDonald’s has the biggest population of younger employees, who work for fewer than 40 hours a week, and pays them a bare minimum. Such individuals are likely to take up other part time jobs, and are thus alienated not only from their peers and fellow human beings, but also from their nature as human beings. On the other hand, given that they are expected to work under specific set of rules, they are also alienated from involvement. This is the reality for a majority of workers around the globe. In the case of apple, there was a scandal in 2010, where 14 employees committed suicide out of 18 suicide attempts at Foxxconn (Mozur, 2012). Foxxconn had been referred to as Apple's Chinese "sweatshop" factory given that workers were only paid about 1.12 pounds per hour to produce iPhones and iPads for the west. This is a good example of employees/workers being alienated not only from involvement, but also loosing contact with products of their labor. From such wages, it is almost impossible for such employees to afford these products. They have to endure difficult working conditions as well as low pay for hard work, while being alienated from not only the products, but also from involvement and even from their nature as human beings, only being reduced to machine like status.

As an individual who has worked at a food chain store, I can support the notion that he concept of alienation is very relevant for understanding the workplace today. With my colleagues, out tasks were limited to following a given procedure, and never deviating from these procedures. In addition to the low pay, we also had to work long hours in order to get the salary with which we could meet our needs. For some of us, this meant looking for part time job in order to get sufficient wages to meet our day to day needs. This not only affected our relationship with others, but also took most of our time to an extent that we only had time to rest. The workplace therefore alienated us from being involved, from peers and from human nature given that we has very little time for those we cared about.

Although there are more rights for workers than was the case for the 19th century factory workers that Marx wrote about, the fact remains that workers remain alienated in all the four ways given that there are a great majority that is desperate to take up any job with the ever reducing job opportunities. Therefore, rights of workers that protect them from exploitation have not significantly changed the fact that they are still alienated in all ways. However, there are a number of ways through which such alienation may be reduced. These include;

Salary increment - this would go a long way helping employees feel that their labor is valuable, and that they have sufficient amounts of money to buy some of the products they produce.

More involvement – although a good number of companies allow for employee involvement, a majority still insist that employees should simply follow given guidelines. However involvement would allow them to put their skills, talents and ideas to use, helping them find value and passion for their work once again.

Lastly, allowing employee’s time on their personal projects and reducing hours of labor would allow them to pursue their interests, spend time with family and friends and form strong relationships with their peers.


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