A little over a year ago, I posted a discussion of Marx's concept of alienation, as described in his essay "Estranged Labour," on the old Austrian Forum. I basically wanted to post a copy of the summary on my blog so I could reference it without having to track down those posts every time (plus, if that site ever got taken down, it would be a bummer if I lost this forever). So here goes nothing:
As close as I can tell, Marx's idea is built on the idea of species-being. According to Marx, "The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity." The nature of man as a species-being, then, is man's ability to separate some sense of "self" from his need to sustain himself as an animal. Thus the species-being man exists to the extent that he can fulfill the nature of this "self." As Marx writes, "...man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need." To try and put it differently, Marx is setting man as an animal apart from man as a man, and he's saying that man as a man can only exist once man as an animal is taken care of.
If this idea is clear, then the next component needed to understand Marx's theory is a basic understanding of Marx's view of labor. To Marx, labor is a commodity which men inherently possess in a specific quantity. Accordingly, using one's labor is irreversible. As Marx writes, "The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things." Think of this idea as Marx saying that when we work, we use ourselves up.
Marx tells us that "...the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labour. The realization of labour is its objectification." That is, the physical equivalent of labor is its objectification, and this physical object of labor can never be reintegrated with the person who created it.
So Marx thinks that when we work, we use ourselves up. The physical equivalent of this process is the "object" of labor, and it represents the part of ourselves that's no longer within us. Integrating this with the idea of species-being, we can reason that man fulfills his species-being when he objectifies his labor in a way that reflects his nature as a man. As Marx writes, a man fulfilling his species-being "...produces himself not only intellectually, in his consciousness, but actively and actually, and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself has created."
Because Marx believes that labor becomes objectified in objects, and a man fulfilling his species-being objectifies his labor in such a way as to create himself as a species-being, Marx thinks that when one objectifies her labor in any other way, this causes her labor to be "estranged." That is, the object of her labor does not reflect her, but something else. This causes the worker to feel distanced from her work, and further makes it impossible to feel like she's living her own life, except when she isn't working. As Marx puts it, "...the fact that labour is external to the worker – i.e., does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself." Marx also tells us, "Estranged labour...turns man's species-being - both nature and his intellectual species-power - into a being alien to him and a means of his individual existence. It estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence, his human existence."
Thus, man feels alienated from his labor, because it doesn't reflect him as a species-being, but rather some other purpose. But the alienation doesn't end here.
Man finds himself in a situation in which his labor has been estranged from him. His work and station in the world is not a reflection of himself, but rather some alien purpose with which he doesn't identify. In this station, he has to relate to others according to their relationship with his adopted "purpose." For example, the factory worker does not relate to his foreman as another person, but rather as a foreman. Because he is forced to identify with his nature as a factory worker, he can not relate to the foreman except through the lens of a factory worker. As Marx writes, "In the relationship of estranged labour, each man therefore regards the other in accordance with the standard and the situation in which he as a worker finds himself."
This is especially true of a man's relationship with his "superiors." Since a man whose labor is estranged is doing something that is not consistent with his nature as a species-being, he feels enslaved. This feeling is projected on his employer, who he views with hostility. Marx writes, "If...he regards the product of his labour, his objectified labour, as an alien, hostile, and powerful object which is independent of him, then his relationship to that object is such that another man - alien, hostile, powerful, and independent of him - is its master. If he relates to his own activity as unfree activity, then he relates to it as activity in the service, under the rule, coercion, and yoke of another man."
Marx's concept of alienation is a very valuable addition to our understanding of life in a society characterized by the division of labor. It's a very important observation that when a person's work does not reflect her view of herself, she feels somehow detached from that work, and can often feel like a slave. Marx's assertion that this feeling of enslavement is projected upon the "cause" of that enslavement - one's employers - is insightful and largely correct. It's also true that despite their detachment from their work, people come to identify with their station in life, and relate to each other through the lens of that station. This is especially true in the workplace, where people often come to view their patrons as "customers" instead of people, and their coworkers as "secretary," "intern," and "manager," instead of as people.
Does this imply that Marx was correct about the need or inevitability of socialism? No, of course not. But understanding alienation can help us improve the way we go about living in capitalism. I'll leave it to others to explain why socialism is stupid, or why the labor theory of value doesn't make sense. But hopefully you can now understand what Marx was trying to tell us about our world in his theory of alienation.
Just as a side note, I wanted to offer a defense of alienation against two important objections.
Objection 1: Marx's idea of alienation, as he explains it, is contingent on people getting poorer at exactly the rate at which their labor was estranged from them. Clearly this isn't true. First of all, it's nonsensical to talk about a rate at which one is losing "labor," which is not a commodity. And secondly, people don't "lose" their labor. They are paid for their work, and this payment allows them to do the sorts of things that "create themselves as species-beings." Because people wouldn't be capable of producing the things they consume on their own, this payment represents an increase in their wealth, and this is a good thing. Therefore, Marx is wrong to say that people are impoverished by their estranged labor. In fact, they are made substantially more wealthy. This wealth means that a substantially smaller portion of their time is spent sustaining themselves, and much more is devoted to acquiring the means to obtain luxuries that would have been unimaginable in Marx's time. Thus, Capitalism is good, and alienation is a stupid concept.
Response: It is indeed true that capitalism and the division of labor allow people to live better lives. Marx did recognize the virtues of the capitalistic order, but he believed that the trend would be towards gradual impoverishment of workers, bringing them closer and closer to subsistence wages. This is not how things actually turned out. But those elements of Marx's theory of alienation were the things that helped him establish socialism. The theory of alienation is a vital one even with the socialistic parts removed. Marx was correct in observing that people feel less whole when they have to work a job they don't consider to be a reflection of themselves, and it's worth asking whether or not we could work towards making capitalism less slavish in that sense. I don't mean by government, necessarily, or by communism. But employers would be wise and right to facilitate conditions in the workplace which made people feel more human. And people in the workplace often do treat each other like "coworkers" instead of as people. Fostering a working environment where workers could relate to each other in a more personable way would be a good thing. The same idea goes for treating one's employees like peers, and not like slaves.
Objection 2: Marx's concept of alienation would suggest that anyone producing anything for others to consume would be alienated from that labor. We can't produce everything we consume on our own, so we can never avoid alienation.
Response: That's sort of true. People who fulfill themselves through their work will not be estranged from it. Marx wouldn't have put it this way, but if the objectification of one's labor can be construed as the feeling of a job well done, or a feeling of pride for one's position and accomplishments, then alienation doesn't have to be apparent, even if the physical object of labor is lost. But it's true that when we do work we don't find fulfilling, we'll feel alienation, and people will always have responsibilities that don't reflect their deepest desires as individuals. So alienation is, in a sense, an unavoidable part of life. But recognizing this fact is valuable nonetheless. We would be wise to consider alienation when making life choices and weighing alternatives. For example, I could probably make a bunch of money if upon graduation, I went to work for this asset management firm I'm interning at this summer [remember, this was originally written a year ago -- incidentally, I went back to work there for about a year between finishing my undergrad and starting grad school!]. But I find philosophy so much more fulfilling. I mean, I'm writing this post out on a Saturday morning. So I'm choosing the professor route, even if it may be harder for me to get by.