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Key words: Alienation

Daniel Newman explains a key Marxist concept for understanding how labour under capitalism denies workers their humanity

3 minute read

A young person, dressed for office work, looks despondently at a laptop computer

The concept of alienation is key to understanding early Marx. His focus here was on how labour under capitalism was denying people their humanity. Labour could be liberatory, allowing workers to shape the world around them and express their personalities. Capitalist class relations curb the potential of labour by disconnecting workers from what and why they produce.

Under the privately-owned means of production, workers function as a mechanistic instrument of capital and not as social beings with individual agency. Workers cede control of their lives – and, by extension, their very selves – by not having control over their labour. Labour under capitalism does not allow workers to engage in journeys of self-discovery; it is not a means to attain autonomy. Workers can exist only in the manner that has use to the bosses; they are subservient to wider capitalist system goals and prescribed activities.

Marx identified four types of alienation workers experience under capitalism:

1: Alienation from what is produced

Workers are first rendered unable to determine the design of a product or the nature of a service as they have no control over how it is produced. Instead, management assumes full creative control over the labour process, and it is bosses who decide what should be offered and how it should be delivered, thus appropriating all aspects of the workers’ labour power. Such sublimation renders the workers as automatons.

2: Alienation from the act of production

The resulting tasks lead to a monotonous and unstimulating pattern of work. Under capitalism, labour power is reduced from an activity that can lift the worker toward new heights of fulfilment to one that is only done for wages, demoting labour to a degrading exchange value. Workers become tied into an endless sequence of repetitive, trivial and often meaningless motions, unsatisfying in nature and precluding the feeling of a job well done. The worker is reduced to an object, which prevents them from activating every aspect of their human nature.

3: Alienation from the species being

The potential of individuals to develop towards their highest self through work is thus challenged by the downgrading of labour power. Humans are differentiated from animals by the ability to think about the consequences of their actions. Distinguishing ends from means, humans can objectify intentions by separating the subject (themselves) from the object (the end result). Animals only engage in self-sustaining activity. As the intrinsic essence of labour power is repressed, the development of workers as human beings is stunted.

4: Alienation from other workers

Finally, the capitalist system diminishes the act of work to a base economic practice – a simple commercial commodity – rather than recognising any social elements. Workers become products to be traded in the wider labour market. This commodification cheapens the act of work as a collective societal endeavour. Workers are atomised and lose common cause with other workers, developing individualistic mindsets that encourage them to act against each other in a survival of the fittest.

This article first appeared in issue #240, Summer 2023, Debt. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Daniel Newman is a reader in law at Cardiff University and author of books including Justice in a Time of Austerity (Bristol University Press, 2021)

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