To fully explore and apprehend the underlying concept of worker alienation as it relates to Marxist economic doctrine, one must go back directly to one of his less well-known volumes of theory. The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital are not the repositories of deep thought providing the necessary background foundation for applying the element of alienation from the work one produces to an overall understanding of socialist theory; that job belongs to The German Ideology. Which may seem unnatural to some readers given the history of Germany’s ide0logical preference for the right side of the political spectrum rather than the left as exemplified by Marx’s communist vision of economic determinism.
That which is nominally referred to as worker alienation when discussing Marxist theory is more appropriately framed within semantics as an estrangement of labor. Such was the vernacular specifically chosen by Marx himself during the writing of a treatise titled “Estranged Labour” in 1844. Marx has only his own rather idiosyncratic demonstration of the nature of the English idiom to blame for that rather elegantly descriptive term later being transmogrified into the far more commonly accepted concept of alienation of the worker.
The result of this march through the history of monetary transaction and the evolution of the worker arrives at the state of things during the late 1800s in which the transactional basis of labor has divided into two distinct and quite separate classes. These classes Marx once again identifies with rather spirited prose as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Once again, historical analysis has made the picture somewhat clearer: the world is today separated into the owner and the worker.
The bourgeois owners managed to be created from the collapse of the feudal system and the rise of the Industrial Revolution. What the Industrial Revolution succeeded in doing aside from destroying a mercantile system that depended upon craftsmanship and artisanship to produce goods that could not only be sold by the producer, but also enjoyed was to alienate that producer from those goods. Not to mention reducing the quality through process of mass manufacturing in order to meet the ever-growing demand for a growing middle class. What the worker gained in the ability to buy as a result of higher wages, he also lost in the ability to buy many of the things he now took part in producing. This represents the first stage of alienation: that of estrangement from the product one creates.
Consider the history of the blacksmith. A blacksmith at one time was as necessary in every village as a doctor or real estate agent would be today. The blacksmith heated the metal in the fiery crucible and then banged his hammer on the anvil to work the soft inferno into shape so it could be fitted—for a price—on the fastest or strongest or most beautiful horse around. Then he could engage in the same work and make a horseshoe of the same quality—or higher—for his own nag. But what of today’s worker in the Mercedes-Benz factory? He works all day long to create parts for a high-performance automobile. He may even be considered well paid relative to others in the same general geographic area. But can he afford to actually buy the high performance product his labor is so vital to creating? In most cases, certainly not. The worker has become, in effect, alienated from the very thing he is tasked with creating.
Such a distance between creator and product had perhaps existed to some great degree before the rise of capitalist under the specter of the Industrial Revolution, but it was certainly not the norm. Nor was the alienation of the very process of working which is the second stage of Marx’s alienation. Perhaps the blacksmith did not especially enjoy his job. Perhaps he did not wake up every day roaring to head to the oppressive heat in which he fashioned his metallurgical creations. But there is respect in artisanship. The process of dislocation from the process of creation that lies at the very foundation of capitalism might be called estrangement by Marx and it might be term alienation by modern day interpreters. Perhaps it would be better understood by the masses if it was reinvented as a term heard nearly every in the real world of going to a job in America.
Marxian alienation of the worker only begins with the concept of spending thousands of hours of your life making things for other people that you could never possibly afford yourself. It may only be a gradual process, but if Marx is absolutely right, then that process begins to intensify and expand and expound until every possible aspect of one’s life is affected. Alienation it may well be, but most workers experience it as a dreaded sense that nothing in their life seems to be satisfying some deep and perhaps unexplained need.
That need for some—indeed, perhaps, for most—is the feeling that satisfaction that comes with doing what you love or expressing the ultimate bounds of your own creativity. Ultimately, the effect of intense and unrelenting alienation from the work you are paid to do rather than the work you love to do is depression. This is exactly what Marx is expressing in The German Ideology when he discusses how the capitalist system serves to alienate man from himself. What is depression, after all, but a feeling of being alienated from the joy that you should be feeling. Not depression that results from grief or loss or the imbalances in brain chemistry, but that more simplistic, everyday kind of depression known as the blues. Why should someone with a great paying job that requires very little physical effort and allows time to be spent with the family cause alienation to the point of feeling the blues as the Sunday afternoon football game enters the fourth quarter amidst the realization that you only have a few hours of freedom before you must go to sleep and then get up on Monday morning to head to a job that others may envy, but you have found you dread?
Because capitalism according to Marx is about the lack of fulfillment for the worker. What he does not definitively assert within the pages of The German Ideology, but which can be intuited from the connotation provided by a running subtextual analysis throughout his writings—and which has proven to be undeniably true in the reality since that writing—is that capitalism is an economic system utterly dependent on instilling a lack of fulfillment for the consumer as well as the producer. Once the consumer has his needs fulfilled, the only value left for a product is surplus value. Without an endless and bountiful supply of surplus value, capitalism dies.
Surplus value is about the commodification of desire and represents one of the great theoretical breakthroughs of Marxist economics forwarded in the writing of The German Ide0logy. The alienated worker must continually create for the capitalist owner a series of never-ending products that creates not a sense of fulfillment on the consumer end, but a lack of fulfillment. Such a paradox is the very essence of the nature of contradictions that makes capitalism work.
Worker alienation is necessary because the system of ownership by the few to exploit the many stuck in the proletariat feeds this process of dissatisfaction and depression. The void in the lives of those who lived and worked under previous systems used to be filled with religion. Perhaps the most famous quote associated with Marx has something to do with religion and addiction, but the modern worker has little to do with religion as an addiction. Instead, he looks to leisure as his opiate of choice.
Religion may well be an opiate, but it is a communal addiction. The addiction of leisure that allows the worker to leave the office every day and then arrive back the next without committing suicide in the interim is far less communal. One look around you on the subway or the bus or even through car windows on the jam-packed highway leading to the offices packed with dehumanizing cubicles is enough to tell the modern evolution of how capitalism is a system designed from both the producer and consumer to engender alienation from those around you. Count how many earplugs are in how many earholes on the way to work. Keep a careful eye on the number of smartphones being punched on the way to work and the way home and even while at work.
The technological advancements of the surging success of capitalism have contributed to man’s alienation from his fellow man in ways that Karl Marx likely could never have imagined. Indeed, one may well imagine if Marx might have a different view of religion were he to witness the figurative and literal disconnect that exists between human beings today. Conversations take place not with actual verbal expressions, but through the process of typing out messages of semi-literate prose on the smallest of screens that are deemed greater possessions than the much larger screens inside homes. And yet, take away those large screens and millions lose the power to connect in meaningful ways with the rest of the world. The Industrial Revolution gave way to the Information Revolution, yet those means of distribution and disseminating information have only served to widen the gap of alienation that Marx wrote about a century and a half earlier.
Is Marx right about capitalism alienating the worker from the product he creates, from the process of creation, from himself and those around him? Read The Germany Ideology to compile more information in order to make this determination for yourself.