Why Capitalism Alienates Us From Our Labour?
Written by: Burak Reisyan
Having to work in exchange for a wage has been the standard for many across the globe in our times. However, while this may seem like a historical constant, the Marxist school of thought has traced this historical development to the development of capitalism. From this analysis, came the theories of its impact on humanity, including the theory of alienated labour. This entry will explain the four sides of alienated labour and synthesizes Marx’s ideas with that of Engels to better understand the connection of alienated labour to wage labour. The analysis starts with identifying workers’ alienation from the product of their labour. Then the process of production is alienating for the worker. From these two initial findings, the text will explore how this came into being during the transition from the feudal mode of production by investigating the three stages of this development. Deducing from these two identifications, in conjunction with Marx’s understanding of distinct human qualities, the last two types will be reached which include the alienation of person from their essence and other individuals. Finally, these forms of alienation will be explored through the lens of historical materialism.
Alienation from the product and the process of production
When Marx refers to the product confronting the worker as an external alien entity, it is communicated that despite objectifying that product through labour, the worker has no ownership to claim over it. Under capitalism, this exchange, named wage labour, forces the propertyless worker to sell their labour power to a propertied class (employers) in exchange for a wage. Thus, the worker loses ownership of the labour performed during work, and the freedom to decide how to perform that labour, as well as any objects that result from that labour. In simple terms, when a labourer performs their labour on a raw material or an unfinished item to complete it, the product is appropriated by the capitalist. Thus, the first form of alienation is reached from this relationship where, objectification of one’s labour is appropriated from him.
If wage is a necessary consequence of alienated labour, and is what the labourer receives in exchange for expropriation of their labours' creations, then defining wages can illuminate the relationship between the two. According to Marx, wages are the amount of money which the capitalist pays in exchange for the worker's capacity to perform labour i.e., its labour-power. Capitalist buys the said labour power not with the sale of the value generated by that worker's product because that value is unrealized (most of the time) by the time worker is owed a wage. Then the wages are paid by existing capital. Hence, labour-power is a commodity purchased by the capitalist like any other resource necessary for production. Since we established earlier that the worker is alienated from the product, and now established that wage is not their product’s realized value, the worker is not concerned with finding a buyer for the product of its labour. Thus, it can better illuminate how the worker is alien to their product.
Departing from Marx’s explanation of wages the second form of alienation occurs during the activity of labour’s objectification, i.e., production. The internal character of this alienation occurs from the exchange of labour power for wages. Since the worker requires money to exist as a worker, and they do not own their capital to acquire it, they have no other choice but to sell their labour power, according to Marx, this defines wage-labour relationship as a relation of coerced labour. When this transaction occurs, the worker is stripped of time for activities which, would develop out of the natural mental and physical energy. The worker is left unable to imagine how to perform the labour, the implementation of the product of the labour, and when to perform the labour. Instead, the hours, the conditions, and the task of the work are all given to them as orders. Its external character comes from the cessation of workers’ ownership over their labour power, hence the cessation of productive mental activity for the worker. While this occurrence is easy to conceptualize within a factory setting or manual work where, either raw materials are extracted from nature, or received to produce commodities, alienation persists even in service-related work.
Applying Marx’s line of thought, it can be deduced that service labour still generates a profit for capitalists, otherwise such jobs would not exist. The use of service work still entails a labourer hired by a capitalist in the same exchange of labour power for a wage. Similarly, the worker is faced with alien company policies to follow, in some cases they are given scripts to follow as "representatives" of the capitalists facing the buyers, thus letting go of their own personhood during the time of work. This process can be compared to the first two forms of alienation by workers’ alienation to the process of providing the service within the boundaries of the company policies, as well as the product of the service. In this case, objectification would be measured not by its objectification (since no object is created, but service is provided) but through the surplus labour extracted through this process. The purpose of this argument is by no means to construct a new theory of alienation based on service work but to paint a clearer picture of the applicability of alienated labour even in contemporary labour markets, where work has been diversified.
Yet, according to the Marxist narrative class society existed before capitalism. The “Communist Manifesto” famously begins by declaring the history of all hitherto existing societies as a history of class struggles. One cannot help but wonder, why weren't the labour of previously oppressed classes not subject to alienation. The answer would be found following the materialist history of industrial production since the Middle Ages, which has been divided into three distinct categories. The first stage of development relates to handicraft production, which entails a craftsman, a few journeymen, and apprentices; products are worked on by these labourers who produce a complete article. Second, is the manufacturing stage which a greater number of labourers are gathered in one establishment to produce a complete article by each performing a task based on the division of labour. Finally, modern industry refers to most labour being performed by machinery in a factory setting, where the labourer's job is reduced to superintending and assisting the machinery.
From looking at this schema, during the transitionary period from feudal mode of production to capitalism, the organization of labour and the form of appropriation produced commodities face a qualitative change. In the handicraft production model, the question of the owner of the product of labour could not arise. This is due to the craftsman, the individual producer, owning the raw materials, tools, and labour. External help from journeymen and apprentices of the guilds was indeed used, however, it has been compensated by education for those to become craftsmen themselves instead of a wage. On the other hand, when the organization of production that followed since is observed, one notices socialization in the process of production occurring, i.e., the finished product had to go through different workers, performing different tasks, in a joint effort. During this transition, the production relied less and less on the labour of the individual owner who possessed the tools and the raw materials and instead more on workers hired by the owners of the tools to perform each incremental task individually. Yet the appropriation of the finished products remained in the hands of the owners of the raw materials and the tools of production, while the ownership of the one performing the labour has been negated in these stages. Thus, those performing the labour lost ownership of the product of their labour. Besides, when external labour was utilized (e.g., journeymen and apprentices), those who performed the labour could one day own the products of their labour through the guild system, however, the wage-labourer had little to no chance of owning the means of production under this, then newly developing, system of organization.
Therefore, the application of the materialist conception of history uncovers production’s socialization on a mass scale, while negating the labourer, their ownership of the product, and their labour power under capitalism. This change in its development explains why alienation is a process exclusive to capitalism despite, class division’s existence in previously dominating organizations of society.
Alienation From Species-Being and Individuals
This uncovers the form of the exchange of alienated labour but to uncover the content i.e., the alienation of person from their essence, the concept of “species-being” should be explored. According to Marx, the distinct feature of human attribute is free and conscious material production which is its species activity. While animals produce to meet the immediate need of themselves and their offspring, humans possess the capacity to produce beyond their needs. However, wage labour turns this capability of free production into its opposite. With coerced labour, man can only produce for a wage, not as a free agent for their species. Wage labour represents the opposite of conscious, intellectual, free labour – an alien process “avoided like the plague” yet is forced on the worker for their individual existence and survival, hence life becomes only a means for life. Then the only free activity workers have are the essential animal functions, such as eating, drinking, procreating, or existing in the dwelling. Better explained, life begins for the worker when wage labour ceases; at the table, at the tavern, and in bed.
Deducing further from this point on, Marx concludes that estrangement from species-being, by reducing their essence into a coerced labour for their own reproduction, reduces the whole being of that person to their individual survival. Therefore, within this relationship, alienated from one’s species-being, man also sees the other man in the same relationship where others' product of their labour and object of labour becomes alien to him. From this point, Marx concludes the fourth and final form of alienation which consists of the alienation of man from other man.
One contradiction that arises out of the capitalist system and its socialized organization of production (mentioned under the previous header), is against the individualization of the man’s life. Despite the production of man being in cooperation among others, because they are alienated from the production, the product, their species-being, and from the others in the means of production; the revolutionary call for united action by Marx in the Communist Manifesto becomes a difficult task. While on the surface those employed alongside a worker have the common interest as any other, in one establishment, collective action becomes irreconcilable with the conditions for means of individual subsistence that capitalism sets for the worker. This attribute could be explained by the alienation of man from himself and other men, observed by the prioritization of individual means of subsistence.
While some other thinkers, such as Locke and Hobbes, argued that individual subsistence, manifested as competition — accumulation in Locke’s case and brutal state of nature in Hobbes’— Marx would argue those conditions developed outside the individual. Capitalism’s tendency to produce commodities for the sole purpose of exchange rather than use is a trait unique to itself. This creates a condition where, the amount of a certain commodity entering a market, and the demand for that commodity is unknown. Thus, it is also unknown whether it can satisfy the demand or even be sold in the first place, — i.e., the Anarchy reigning over the free markets. However, the lack of rules of the anarchic market creates its own rules through its relations such as the laws of competition which, affects society at large by controlling the organization of labour. This conception of alienation of man from other man differentiates itself from other arguments which, attribute this factor directly to the essence or nature of humanity.
This entry analyzed the four forms of alienation and compared each two forms through a historical materialist perspective which traced the development of capitalism through classical Marxist literature. In doing so it uncovered the process of socialized production and its connection to alienation. Then this was distinguished from the thinkers who attribute the process to inherent human attributes. Although Marx recognizes that cessation of man’s alienation in all forms requires overthrow of the capitalism — the system he correlates the development of alienation to— through revolutionary struggles, this contradiction has not yet been overcome even to this day on a large global scale.
Engels, Frederick. “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.” Marxists.org, 1880. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/index.htm.
Marx, Karl. “Estranged Labour.” Marxists.org, 1844. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm.
Marx, Karl. Wage Labour and Capital. Marxists Internet Archive, 1847. Retrieved February 19, 2023.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marxists Internet Archive, 1848. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from https://www.marxists.org/admin/books/manifesto/Manifesto.pdf.