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Karl Marx's theory of alienation describes the social alienation (German: Entfremdung, 'estrangement') of people from aspects of their human nature (Gattungswesen, “species-essence”) as a consequence of living in a society stratified into social classes; Marx had earlier expressed the Entfremdung theory in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1927). Philosophically, the Entfremdung theory relies upon The Essence of Christianity (1841), by Ludwig Feuerbach, which argues that the supernatural idea of “God” has alienated the natural characteristics of the human being. Moreover, in The Ego and its Own (1845), Max Stirner extends the Feuerbach analysis by arguing that even the idea of “humanity” is an alienating concept for the individual man and woman to intellectually consider; Marx and Engels responded to these philosophic propositions in The German Ideology (1845).
Alienation is the systemic result of living in a socially stratified society, because being a mechanistic part of a social class alienates a person from his and her humanity. The theoretic basis of alienation within the capitalist mode of production is that the worker invariably loses the ability to determine his or her life and destiny, when deprived of the right to think (conceive) of himself as the director of his actions; to determine the character of said actions; to define their relationship with other people; and to own the things and use the value of the goods and services, produced with their labour. Although the worker is an autonomous, self-realised human being, as an economic entity, he or she is directed to goals and diverted to activities that are dictated by the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, in order to extract from the worker the maximum amount of surplus value, in the course of business competition among industrialists.
In a capitalist society, the worker’s alienation from his and her humanity occurs because the worker can only express labour — a fundamental social aspect of personal individuality — through a privately owned system of industrial production in which each worker is an instrument, a thing, not a person; Marx explained alienation thus:
Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have, in two ways, affirmed himself, and the other person. (1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and, therefore, enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also, when looking at the object, I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses, and, hence, a power beyond all doubt. (2) In your enjoyment, or use, of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature... Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.
In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1927), Marx identified four types of alienation (Entfremdung) that occur to the worker labouring under a capitalist system of industrial production.
The design of the product and how it is produced are determined not by the producers who make it (the workers), nor by the consumers of the product (the buyers), but by the Capitalist class, who, besides appropriating the worker’s manual labour, also appropriate the intellectual labour of the engineer and the industrial designer who create the product, in order to shape the taste of the consumer to buy the goods and services at a price that yields a maximal profit. Aside from the workers having no control over the design-and-production protocol, alienation (Entfremdung) broadly describes the conversion of labour (work as an activity), which is performed to generate a use value (the product) into a commodity, which — like products — can be assigned an exchange value. That is, the Capitalist gains control of the manual and intellectual workers, and the benefits of their labour, with a system of industrial production that converts said labour into concrete products (goods and services) that benefit the consumer. Moreover, the capitalist production system also reifies labour into the “concrete” concept of “work” (a job), for which the worker is paid wages — at the lowest possible rate — that maintain a maximum rate of return on the Capitalist’s investment capital; this is an aspect of exploitation. Furthermore, with such a reified system of industrial production, the profit (exchange value) generated by the sale of the goods and services (products) that could be paid to the workers, instead is paid to the capitalist classes: the functional capitalist, who manages the means of production, and the rentier capitalist, who owns the means of production.
In the Capitalist Mode of Production, the generation of products (goods and services) is accomplished with an endless sequence of discrete, repetitive motions that offer the worker little psychological satisfaction for “a job well done”. By means of commodification, the labour power of the worker is reduced to wages (an exchange value); the psychological estrangement (Entfremdung) of the worker results from the unmediated relation between his productive labour and the wages paid him for the labour. That division of labour, within the capitalist mode of production, further exploits the worker by limiting his or her Gattungswesen (species-essence) — the human being’s power to determine the purpose to which the product (goods and services) shall be applied; the human nature (species-essence) of the worker is fulfilled when he or she controls the “subject of labour”. Hence does capitalism remove from the worker the right to exercise control upon the value and the effects of his and her labour, which, in turn, robs the worker of the ability to either buy (consume) the goods and services, or to receive the full value from the sale of the product. The alienation of the worker from the act of producing renders the worker unable to specialize in a type of productive labour, which is a psychologically satisfying condition; within an industrial system of production, social alienation reduces the worker to an instrument, to an object, and thus cannot productively apply every aspect of his or her human nature.
The Gattungswesen (species-essence), the nature of a person is not detached from their activity as a worker; as such, species-essence also comprises all of their innate human potential as a person. Conceptually, in the term “species-essence”, the word “species” describes the uniquely human traits that are characterized by a “plurality of interests” and “psychological dynamism”, whereby every person has the desire and the tendency to engage in the varied activities that are practically and emotionally benevolent, by means of social connections with other people. The cognitive value of a person consists in being able to conceive of the ends of his actions as purposeful ideas, which are distinct from the actions required to realize a given idea. That is, man is able to objectify his intentions, by means of an idea of himself, as “the subject”, and an idea of the thing that he produces, “the object”. Conversely, unlike a human being, an animal does not objectify itself, as “the subject”, nor its products as ideas, “the object”, because an animal engages in directly self-sustaining actions that have neither a future intention, nor a conscious intention. While a person’s Gattungswesen, their nature, does not exist independent of specific, historically conditioned activities, the essential nature of a human being is actualized when a person — within their given historical circumstance — is free to subordinate his will to the external demands he has imposed upon himself, by his imagination, and not the external demands imposed upon him by other people.
Whatever the character of a person’s consciousness (will and imagination), the worker’s existence in society is conditioned by his or her relationships with the people and things that facilitate survival, which is fundamentally dependent upon co-operation with others, thus, a person’s consciousness is determined inter-subjectively (collectively), not subjectively (individually), because Man is a social animal. In the course of history, to ensure human survival, societies have organised themselves into groups who have different, basic relationships to the means of production. One societal group (class) owned and controlled the means of production, while another societal class worked the means of production; in the relations of production of that status quo, the goal of the owner-class was to economically benefit as much as possible from the labour of the working class. Moreover, in the course of economic development, when a new type of economy displaced an old type of economy — agrarian feudalism superseded by mercantilism, in turn superseded by the Industrial revolution — the rearranged economic order of the social classes favoured the social class who controlled the technologies (the means of production) that made possible the change in the relations of production. Likewise, there occurred a corresponding rearrangement of the human nature (Gattungswesen) and the system of values of the owner-class and of the working-class, which allowed each group of people to accept and to function in the rearranged status quo of production-relations.
Despite the ideologic promise of industrialisation — that the mechanisation of industrial production would raise the mass of the workers, from a brutish life of subsistence existence, to the self-respect of honourable work — the division of labour inherent to the capitalist mode of production, thwarted the human nature (Gattungswesen) of the worker, and so rendered each man and woman into a mechanistic part of an industrialised system of production, from being a person capable of defining his and her value through direct, purposeful activity. Moreover, the near-total mechanisation and automation of the industrial production system would allow the (newly) dominant bourgeois capitalist social class to exploit the working class to the degree that the value obtained from their labour would diminish the ability of the workers to materially survive. Hence, when the proletarian working-class become a sufficiently developed political force, they will effect a revolution and re-orient the relations of production to the means of production — from a capitalist mode of production to a communist mode of production. In the resultant Communist society, the fundamental relation of the workers to the means of production would be equal and non-conflictual, because there would be no artificial (class) distinctions about the value of a worker’s labour; the worker’s humanity (species-essence) thus respected, men and women would not become alienated, from themselves and their society.
In the Communist socio-economic organisation, the relations of production would operate the mode of production and employ each worker according to his abilities, and benefit each worker according to his needs. Hence, each worker could direct his and her labour to productive work suitable to his and her innate abilities — rather than be forced into a narrowly defined, minimal-wage “job” meant to extract maximal profit from the labour of the individual worker, as determined by and dictated under the capitalist mode of production. In the classless, collectively managed Communist society, the exchange of value between the objectified productive labour of one worker, and the consumption benefit derived from that production, will not be determined by or directed to the narrow business interests of a bourgeois capitalist class, but, instead, will be directed to meet the needs of each producer and consumer, of each member of society. Although production will be differentiated, by the degree of each worker’s abilities (by what work he and she can do) the purpose of the communist system of industrial production will be determined by the collective requirements of society, not by the profit-oriented demands of an individualistic bourgeois social class who live at the expense of the greater society. Under the collective ownership of the means of production, the relation of each worker to the mode of production will be identical, and will have the social character that corresponds to the universal interests of the communist society. Therefore, the direct distribution of the profits generated by the labour of each worker — to fulfil the interests of the working class, and so to his and her own interest and benefit — will constitute an un-alienated state of labour conditions, which restores to the worker the fullest exercise and determination of his and her human nature.
Capitalism reduces the labour of the worker to a commercial commodity that can be traded in the competitive labour-market, rather than as a constructive socio-economic activity that is part of the collective common effort performed for personal survival and the betterment of society. In a capitalist economy, the businessmen who own the means of production establish a competitive labour-market meant to extract from the worker as much labour (value) as possible, in the form of capital. The capitalist economy’s arrangement of the relations of production provokes social conflict by pitting worker against worker, in a competition for “higher wages”, thereby alienating them from their mutual economic interests; the effect is a false consciousness, which is a form of ideologic control exercised by the capitalist bourgeoisie. (See: Cultural hegemony.) Furthermore, in the capitalist mode of production, the philosophic collusion of religion in justifying the relations of production facilitates the realisation, and then worsens, the alienation (Entfremdung) of the worker from his and her humanity; it is a socio-economic role independent of religion being “the opiate of the masses”.
In the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ted Honderich described the influences of Hegel and Feuerbach upon Karl Marx:
For Hegel, the unhappy consciousness is divided against itself, separated from its “essence”, which it has placed in a “beyond”.
Marx thought essentially the same notion to portray the situation of modern individuals — especially modern wage labourers — who are deprived of a fulfilling mode of life because their life-activity, as socially productive agents, is devoid of any sense of communal action or satisfaction, and gives them no ownership over their own lives or their products. In modern society, individuals are alienated, in so far as their common human essence, the actual co-operative activity which naturally unites them, is power-less in their lives, which are subject to an inhuman power — created by them, but separating and dominating them instead of being subject to their united will. This is the power of the market, which is “free” only in the sense that it is beyond the control of its human creators, enslaving them by separating them from one another, from their activity, and from its products.The German verbs entäussern and entfremden are reflexive, and, in both Hegel and Marx, alienation is always fundamentally self-alienation. Fundamentally, to be alienated is to be separated from one’s own essence, or nature; it is to be forced to lead a life in which that nature has no opportunity to be fulfilled or actualized. In this way, the experience of ‘alienation’ involves a sense of a lack of self-worth, and an absence of meaning in one’s life.
Entfremdung (alienation) is a foundational proposition in Marxist theory about man’s progress towards self-actualisation. Earlier in the history of philosophy, in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), G.F.W. Hegel described a succession of historic stages in the human Geist (Spirit), by which the human spirit progresses from ignorance towards perfect self-understanding. In Marx's response to Hegel, those poles of idealism (spiritual ignorance and self-understanding) are replaced with categories of materialism, wherein, for man, spiritual ignorance becomes “alienation” and self-understanding becomes the “realisation of his species-being”; thus, the transcendent end of history results in the human triumph over alienation, and the establishment of an objectively better society.
Nonetheless, such a teleological (goal-oriented) reading of Marx, supported by Alexandre Kojève before the Second World War (1939–45), was criticized by Louis Althusser in his discussion of “random materialism” (matérialisme aléatoire), in which he said that such a teleological reading rendered the proletariat as the subject of history; therefore, such an interpretation was tainted with Hegelian idealism, with the “philosophy of the subject”, that had been in force for five centuries, which he criticized as the “bourgeois ideology of philosophy” (cf. History and Class Consciousness , by Georg Lukács).
In Part I: “Feuerbach — Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook” of The German Ideology (1846), Marx said: “Things have now come to such a pass that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but also, merely to safeguard their very existence”. Hence, although people psychologically require the activities that lead to their self-actualisation as persons, it remains a consideration of secondary historical relevance, because the capitalist mode of production eventually will exploit and impoverish the proletariat until compelling them to social revolution for survival. Yet social alienation remains a concern, especially among the philosophers of Marxist Humanism; in the book The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State-Capitalism (1992), Raya Dunayevskaya discussed the existence of the desire for self-activity and self-actualisation among wage-labour workers struggling to achieve the elementary goals of life in a capitalist economy. (See: Marx’s Theory of History and Dialectical materialism.)
In Chapter 4 of The Holy Family (1845), Marx said that capitalists and proletarians are equally alienated, but that each social class experiences alienation in a different form:
The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power, and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and in the reality of an inhuman existence. It is, to use an expression of Hegel, in its abasement, the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature. Within this antithesis, the private property-owner is therefore the conservative side, and the proletarian the destructive side. From the former arises the action of preserving the antithesis, from the latter the action of annihilating it.