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THE MEANING OF MARXISM
Alienation in capitalist society

By Paul D'Amato | September 12, 2003 | Page 9

THE TERM "alienation" in normal usage refers to a feeling of separateness, of being alone and apart from others. For Marx, alienation was not a feeling or a mental condition, but an economic and social condition of class society--in particular, capitalist society.

Alienation, in Marxist terms, refers to the separation of the mass of wage workers from the products of their own labor. Marx first expressed the idea, somewhat poetically, in his 1844 Manuscripts: "The object that labor produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer."

Most of us own neither the tools and machinery we work with nor the products that we produce--they belong to the capitalist that hired us. But everything we work on and in at some point comes from human labor. The irony is that everywhere we turn, we are confronted with the work of our own hands and brains, and yet these products of our labor appear as things outside of us, and outside of our control.

Work and the products of work dominate us, rather than the other way around. Rather than being a place to fulfill our potential, the workplace is merely a place we are compelled to go in order to obtain money to buy the things we need.

"Hence," Marx wrote, "the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor.

"It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague."

In capitalist production, goods are produced for the market in order to get a profit. What matters for the worker, as I've said, is that he or she gets an adequate amount for his or her labor. What is being produced is, in this sense, immaterial.

It is also completely immaterial to the capitalists. So long as whatever they are making can find a market and be sold at a profit, they care not a whit whether they are selling pet rocks or bottled water. In this process, the capitalist sees the worker as merely a component of the production--a commodity (labor) to be squeezed as much as possible.

Moreover, because the aim of production is profit rather than human need, the products of past labor--the machinery and materials, controlled by the capitalists--completely dominate living labor. Workers are literally slaves to the machine and the work process. It controls them, rather than the other way around.

Perhaps one of the most degrading forms alienation takes is the way in which everything can become a commodity to be bought and sold--including sex. There is another aspect to alienation which Marx called the "fetishism of commodities." What he meant by this strange phrase is the way in which the social relation between human beings, in capitalist market production, takes "the fantastic form of a relation between things."

The anarchic, unplanned nature of production for the market means that its participants are unable to exercise any control over it. The result is that the onset of economic boom and the lurch into slump are events that happen independently of the participants. "To them," says Marx, "their own social action takes the form of the actions of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them."

The only way to overcome alienation is for workers to collectively abolish their separation from ownership and control of the means of production, and to use that control to abolish the market and replace it with conscious planning for human need.

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