One of the central tenets of Marxism is the notion of alienation. It is the idea that underpins the fanciful speculations of certain intellectuals and academics, on both the left and right, about the economy. It leads to expressing views that workers are people who are alienated from their work, downtrodden by the big bosses, manipulated by greedy capitalists, ill-treated by companies, and so on.
In this 3-part article, I will look at what Marx means, then look at another view of it from the economist Frank H. Knight, and finally look at how these ideas have become part of popular discourse and misunderstanding about the nature of work and the modern market organization.
The problem with the views expressed in intellectual circles is they don’t tally with reality, which is unsurprising because the academics and intellectuals don’t actually meet with workers or talk with managers who run organizations. They then create fanciful and “postmodern” ideas of capitalism, that is long on wishful thinking and short on the real task of solving economic problems. It is the intellectuals and academics that are alienated from their subject, which is the notion of an objectivized worker.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if it were not for an ironic situation. These fanciful ideas are mainstreamed in academia and taught to young students as either facts or viable alternatives to the way things work. Meanwhile, to give an example, scientific academics mock creationism and deny it a place in teaching in schools, colleges and universities, because it is seen as unscientific and fanciful theological thinking. So, here’s the irony. Why is this fanciful teaching about economy taught on a level plane with economics as taught and practiced, while creationism is denied a place?
Let’s then look at what this fanciful thinking in rooted in. The appeal of this Marxist idea is perhaps obvious, it objectivizes the worker as downtrodden and in need of the secular salvation offered by intellectuals and academics, and appeals to the middle class search for spiritual fulfillment. Alienation, Marx argued, is about the human spirit in the capitalist world. He argued that the capitalist mode of production leads to the workers having no control over their lives because they have no control over their work. Workers become part of the system, part of the machine, for they are simply part of the production process and dispensable, thereby losing their autonomy.
The idea resonates with many religious and philosophical speculations (in this case specifically Hegelian) that we are human creatures wandering this earth feeling we are not in harmony with the world. We feel a distance or a sense of alienation from the world around us, but at some point in the past this was not the case. There has been a golden age but it is not ours, and at some point in the future there will be a restoration.
Marx took this further by arguing that human labor creates culture and history, such that our spirit or zeitgeist is a human product. The practice of our capitalist labor, however, objectivizes our individual human will and thus we do not see ourselves in our work, we cannot express our very essence in work. We become alienated, rather than able to relate truly as human beings.
In the capitalist system, he said, we have a form of wage-labor which represents the most alienating form of work, because the worker is selling his or her labor power to earn a living, while the capitalist owns the production process, including labor and the product of labor. In this way, the worker is alienated because the labor is the product of the capitalist rather than the worker. This product of labor is then put into the market as the product is sold on, and the worker has no future control over that product.
Marx called this Fetishism, which “attaches itself to the products of labor, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. This Fetishism of commodities has its origin…in the peculiar social character of the labor that produces them.” In a process of reification, social relations are thus conceived as relations between things. Alienation can only be overcome by restoring the truly human relationship to the labor process and by people to working to meet our needs, expressing human nature. We do not simply earn a living or work to live.
In this way, Marx explained the value of all commodities, including labor, is the commodity that workers sell to capitalists for a wage, or what Marx called “labor power.” He then went on to pose the question that if labor power is the value of commodities, from where does the capitalist get profit? His answer was that there is a surplus value that the capitalist draws from the worker through exploitation of the worker and the wages paid for the labor. This is simply wrong.
Wrong it may be, but there are elements of this argument that have become detached from their origin in Marx and have become working motifs in anti-capitalism, crony capitalism and the education system. These motifs are manipulation, alienation and what the economy should be doing for us.