Marx and Worker Alienation (Entfremdung in German)

One of Karl Marx’s greatest contributions to sociology and contemporary labour theory is his exploration of alienation. In fact this emerges before he fully embraces socialism or “Marxism” for that matter. Alienation clearly catapaults him on his path of destiny and a materialist conception of history. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, were written while Marx was in Paris and were not even published as they lay in notebook streams until they appeared in German in 1932. It is here where he examines the impact of industrialisation on the worker and develops his theory of alienated labour. An excerpt from the Paris manuscripts:

“The object produced by labour, its product, now stands opposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer. He or she does not fulfill herself in her work but denies herself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely, her mental and physical energies, but is physically exhausted and mentally debased.”

He describes the repetition, the exhaustion, the robotic state of the worker and the dehumanisation of the work process. The worker becomes essentially alienated from herself and loses her sense of humanity. Alienation which is a psychological concept leads to the worker feeling alienated from himself, from other workers and becomes as Marx writes in Das Kapital, a “crippled monstrosity.” This monster is subjected to meaningless, devastating labour and is indistinguishable from machinery.

The Division of Labour, although developed in the writings of Adam Smith, becomes in Marx’s writings a magisterial concept in which profit-driven capitalism creates increasing economies of scale and greater efficiency. Yet the worker’s increasing efficiency comes at the expense of pride and purpose. The worker is highly specialised and contributes portions of the product and loses that sense of responsibility, of pride, of architect of an object. Transforming quantity into quality means the former is the maniacal object of capital and the latter is removed from worker consciousness. The worker is not supposed to take pleasure in her labour but to labour without pleasure relentlessly. Worker alienation is the ultimate degradation of the industrial work force and the supreme humiliation of the proletariat.

Marx took much of the Hegelian architecture but constructed a different edifice. Hegel saw alienation as a philosophic concept in the emerging idealism of alienated humankind from the Absolute Spirit. Marx borrowed the concept but applied it to work, capitalism and a materialist (economic) centered theoretical universe.

The Marxian interpretation of alienation is obviously relevant to any class or occupation as it examines the relationship between work and mental health; work and well-being; work and personal fulfillment; work as an enabler for a better life. To Marx, proletarian alienation resulted from poverty, interminable hours at work and a psychological prison from which the only ultimate exit would be revolution.

I think the theory of alienation is yet another Marxian concept that has practical application and enormous ethical relevance in today’s world of globalisation, exploitation of labour, and the de-skilling of work that obtains in many places due to technological innovation.


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