Almost everyone who has done a day’s work for someone else knows how dehumanising it is. At the end of a day you can feel drained, depressed and angry.
Karl Marx had a word to describe this—alienation.
The term was already in use by other philosophers when Marx was writing, but his insight was to work it into his method of understanding society.
He said individuals were alienated because of the way society is structured—therefore the solution is to transform society.
The term alienation summarises a series of contradictions that stem from workers selling their labour power in return for wages. We are forced to do this in order to survive.
When we are not at work we feel more human than when we are. That is one of the reasons it feels so good to go on strike.
When bosses make money off our labour, it is presented as an unremarkable thing.
The Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs described this as a “phantom objectivity” precisely because it should not be seen as normal. If the relationship is described plainly, it is revealed as obscene.
The worker creates something—a plate of food, a piece of timber—and receives a wage for doing it.
The object is then sold for more than it cost to make, the source of the bosses’ profit.
This is exploitation, the fundamental relationship at the heart of the system. It is based on this basic relationship—theft, but legal theft legitimised by the laws of capitalism.
In the productive process the worker puts something of themselves into the object to transform it, more than just the hours it took to make it.
This is because they are part of the machine which produces capitalists’ profits. A special part, but still a part.
This dehumanises the worker—a person with complex desires and needs is relegated to the position of a cog in a machine.
Marx described the process as if “the individual, himself divided, is transformed into the automatic mechanism of a partial labour.”
At the end of the process the worker is confronted with the product of their labour. It is not theirs but is owned by their boss—Marx described it as being confronted with an alien object. So the worker is alienated from the product of their labour.
They are also alienated from themselves, from each other and from the world around us because we live in a world full of things produced by alienated labour.
The worker’s labour is treated as an object, or something that can be bought, by the boss.
But the boss is also alienated because they sit at the top of a society in which everything is created by alienated labour.
Their alienation is of a different character, because capitalism confirms their humanity while it does the opposite for workers.
Because all these contradictions can’t be resolved in capitalism, the workers internalise them. Anger can be directed at the bosses, but also towards other workers. This is why racism and other forms of oppression can get purchase among working class people.
To this day the use of the term alienation is contested.
One interpretation is characteristic of liberalism—that the root of alienation is within individuals and therefore it can be “cured” through individual solutions such as mindfulness.
In reality it is the social relations at the heart of capitalism that produce alienation. To get rid of alienation we must get rid of class society.