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An alien society

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Why does going to work and producing things make most people feel isolated and atomised rather than fulfilled? Bea Kay looks at Karl Marx’s theory of alienation
Issue 2363
Work - a fulfilling experience or one to avoid?

Work – a fulfilling experience or one to avoid? (Pic: F Javier Llorente/flickr)

Alienation is a word often used about young people rioting or those with severe mental health problems. It is seen as an individual psychological problem with an individual solution that can be addressed within modern society.

The original definition was different. When Karl Marx wrote about alienation it was within the concept of property law, meaning the legal transfer of title of ownership to another party. So when he was developing his ideas about labour and alienation in the 1840s, he wasn’t studying a new area.

He rejected the idea that human beings have a fixed “human nature”. He argued that the need to feed and clothe ourselves, to find shelter and to procreate were the only consistent features of all human societies. Marx said that human beings, like all other animals, must work on nature to survive.  But we are different to animals in the way we labour. 

We have the ability to imagine things that we want to create before we do them. As human beings we have the ability to consciously act on our environment and to change it.

Marx put it like this, “By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway.” 

And we are social beings because we need to work together to get what we need to live. What happens to the process of work therefore has a decisive influence on the whole of society.

As our ability to increase our production through cooperation developed, primitive societies began to produce a surplus. 

With this class society emerged. One class was liberated from the need to directly produce the means to exist, living instead on its control over the labour of the workers, the producers.

Consequently the majority of society lost control of their labour. The alienation of labour arose with class society. The form that alienation took depended on the productive forces of that society. 

For instance, under feudalism peasants worked their own land and produced most of the things they needed in their family units. The landowner was brutal.  Much of the peasants’ produce was taken directly from them in the form of tithes and people often starved due to poor crops and disease.

So although relationships in feudal society were of domination and subordination, they were social relationships between individuals. 

But new capitalist traders emerged, who found they were constrained by the limited market forces of feudal society. They wanted a society in which the value of commodities could be measured independently of each other, creating the solution in the form of money. 

For Marx this was the development of alienation under early capitalism. “Selling is the practice of alienation,” he wrote. In the process of transforming society from feudalism to capitalism, people were deliberately stripped of the means to produce. 

Vicious acts of repression such as the Highland Clearances forced peasants off the land. This process appeared to “free” workers to choose where they worked. Actually it brought in a more subtle “economic” form of alienation, “wage labour”—where workers have to sell their ability to labour in order to survive.


This is the time when society became geared to the needs of developing industry—and clocks developed second hands. Marx described four areas of alienation—alienation from the product of our labour, from the labour process, from our fellow human beings and from nature.

Under capitalism our activity is owned and controlled by someone else. We cannot take and use the things we produce in order to survive. We often make things we cannot afford ourselves, for example Rolls Royce cars. 

We are exploited because we are paid less than the value of what we produce so our creative activity is taken from us in exchange for wages. But we have no way of getting this activity back. We cannot buy it with the wages we are given. Instead all we can buy is “things”, commodities.

Commodities then dominate and confront us as hostile and alien beings. For example when new technology is introduced it is not as something to make life easier but as something that threatens our jobs. Even our activity outside of work becomes limited by our alienation, by long hours and poor wages. What we do with our leisure time has now become an industry in itself.

Alienation from the labour process flows from the fact that we have no control over the way we work, how it is organised and how it affects us physically and mentally. 

Because of the need for competition and efficiency our managers and bosses constantly make us work harder, faster, for longer and for less. This involves breaking down the labour process into smaller, more fragmented processes. Workers are treated as machines resulting in rigidly repetitive tasks which bury their individual talents or skills.  

Alienation from our fellow human beings is the rooted in the antagonisms that inevitably arise from the class structure of society. We despise our bosses for the amount they are paid for their ineptitude. 

We are connected to other humans only through the buying and selling of the commodities we produce. But we only know them through the objects we buy and consume, not as individuals but as representatives of

different relations of production. In a restaurant the heavily pressurised waitress refers to you as “the order of chips” rather than a person with a name making an order.

We compete with each other for jobs, partners, status, money, and we come to view each other in terms of the job we do. Finally we are alienated from our human nature because under capitalism our labour is coerced, our work bears no relationship to our personal inclinations or collective interests. 

Our ability to act collectively to further our interests is submerged under private ownership and the class divisions it produces. We can see agency, casual and so-called foreign workers as our enemy rather that uniting with them.


Yet it would now be possible to plan our production to the developing needs of society. Instead of meeting those needs, the drive for profit sees cheaper production techniques which destroy our environment and ultimately threaten our ability to survive.

Capitalism has become a system dominated by “commodities”, things exchanged for money. Relationships stop being between producers and workers but are perceived in terms of the commodities themselves. 

Marx described this process of the “reification”—the attribution of human powers to inanimate objects. He referred to the way in which social organisation appears as independent of human will as “commodity fetishism”. 

Even the owners of the means of production are caught in a contradiction. They are in constant competition in order to keep up with each other, with the ever increasing risk of economic recession which can destroy them. 

But the ruling class is driven to defend the system that creates alienation with all the power and brutality at their disposal because of their material position within it. 

For workers the situation is very different. We may try to separate ourselves from the worst effects of the this system, perhaps through alternative lifestyles. But this will not remove our alienation. 

It’s through class struggle when we act together against a common enemy that we start to understand that workers create the wealth in society and that gives us power. 

The process of fighting back also helps us to break down some of the ideas that the bosses put forward to separate us like racism, sexism, homophobia.

But fighting to reform capitalism isn’t enough. We have to look at the big picture, the need to transform society as a whole. 

We have the potential to eradicate many diseases, to house, clothe and feed everyone, to reduce the working week and to get rid of oppression. Yet capitalism prevents us from realising our full human capacity. 

Alienation is rooted in capitalist society. It is collective struggle against that society that carries the potential to eradicate alienation permanently.

This article is based on a talk given at the Marxism 2013 festival in London


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