This article provides an overview of the concept of alienation in social theory. It begins with a detailed discussion of the origins of alienation in the work of Karl Marx, including the relationship of alienation to wage labor and the industrial system. Next, it provides a summary of different theorists' opinions on whether or not alienation can be overcome, and if so, how. Finally, it presents views on alienation from a number of other classical and contemporary social theorists, including postmodern thinkers. Theorists discussed include Arendt, Berger, Baumann, Baudillard, Durkheim, Simmel, Adorno, Bourdieu, Harvey, and Sartre.
Keywords Alienation; Anomie; Capitalism; Class; Communism; Dehumanization; Enlightenment; Empirical; False Consciousness; Fragmentation; Ideology; Modernity; Norms; Objectivity; Postmodernity; Rationality; Rationalization; Reification; Religion; Self; Theory; Wage Labor; Work
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, alienation means the "action of estranging." What the object of estrangement is, however, can vary. Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries the term was used frequently in legal discussions to refer to the separation of affections between two people, the transfer of ownership or property, or the illegitimate use of some good. Though it is easy to see how the sociological use of the term might derive from this etymology, alienation has quite a different meaning to sociologists and social theorists.
The theorist mostly closely associated with the notion of alienation in the social sciences is Karl Marx. Today, Marx is best known as a theorist of capitalism, history, and economics; he used the term alienation to explain some of what he saw as the more problematic outcomes of the transition to a capitalist economy. He argued that alienation stemmed from the engagement in wage labor in the capitalist economy. Prior to the emergence of factory labor during the industrial revolution, people were intimately and directly connected to the products of their labor. For instance, a farmer knew the land he worked, and the farmer and his family consumed the produce that grew on that land. Similarly, a shoemaker knew the details of every pair of shoes he made, including who bought them and for how much money. In the factory system, this was no longer true. Individual workers were responsible for only one small step in the production process, leaving them distant from the ultimate product. Observing this shift, Marx argued that alienation occurs when workers, through participation in wage labor, become estranged from the products of their labor (in other words, the goods they are producing).
In fact, the notion of alienation is quite a bit more complicated than this simple tale would show it to be. The worker's estrangement from the product of his or her labor leads the him or her to see this product as an alien object. Whereas farmers or shoemakers would have seen the product of their labor as an essential part of their daily lives, factory workers or wage laborers see the product of their labor as just another object. Thus, life and labor become in some sense separate and distinct, even as labor becomes a larger and larger part of workers' lives. Marx noted that industrial workers spend two-thirds of the time that they are awake engaged in labor for someone else-labor that is nothing more than meaningless activity. While contemporary labor laws provide for a minimum wage and, in some countries, define the maximum hours a person can spend at work, the difference is only one of extent. Today, we still spend a considerable percentage of our lives at work, thinking about work, and commuting to work. A worker, for instance, who sleeps eight hours a night, works forty-five hours a week, and spends one hour per day commuting will spend roughly half of his or her waking life at work (and that is counting the weekends). Ultimately, Marx argued that the objectification of the product of work combined with the all-encompassing nature of wage labor leads workers to view their own labor power, too, as nothing more than an object.
Alienation is not just about the separation of people from the products of their labor. It is also about the separation of people from their own essential nature. Therefore, the essential distinction underlying Marx's notion of alienation is the distinction between labor that is undertaken by an individual for his or her own benefit, in order to express his or her own personality, relationships, and ideals, and labor that is one for the satisfaction of external motivations, most particularly to secure the means of subsistence, or the money and other material goods necessary to people for survival. Marx sees this latter form of labor as a form of self-sacrifice and the cause of the estrangement between people and their essential beings. To Marx, in other words, industrial laborers have not only sold their labor power to the capitalist, but have also lost their souls.
Marx identified four different types of alienation: the individual can be alienated from his or her self, from his or her fellow person, from his or her labor, or from the product of that labor.
• Alienation from the product of one's labor occurs when one does not control the product. Rather, it is under the control and ownership of the capitalist, and the worker cannot use the product no matter how much he or she needs it. • Alienation from one's labor occurs when one does not have control over the conditions of that labor. Whereas in the traditional mode work could be a creative enterprise, within an industrial context it instead becomes a space of oppression wherein the capitalist, or the employer, tells the worker what to do and how to do it. • Alienation from fellow people results from two cause. First, Marx argues that the capitalist economic system inherently produces class conflict and that this conflict leads us to be alienated from others. Second, human relationships to a great extent become defined by economic exchange rather than by personal interest or affection. • Finally, we become alienated from ourselves when the domination of the capitalist system eliminates our essential human nature as conscious shapers of the world.
In summary, Marx argues that alienation develops out of the emergence of capitalism. According to him, private ownership of industry leads to the development of factory wage labor systems in which individual workers sell their labor power to capitalists in return for a cash wage. The fragmented and depersonalized labor process then results in the estrangement of the worker from the product and from his or her essential self. In sum, wage labor leads directly to alienation.
Resisting and Reversing Alienation
Some authors argue that alienation is an irreversible process, or at least that reversing it would be extremely difficult and unlikely. For instance, Jean-Paul Sartre suggested that the estrangement between individuals that arises from alienation makes the coordination of resistance to oppression difficult and unlikely, thus perpetuating our alienation from one another. Similarly, David Harvey's argument that individuals have become fragmented and without the ability to pursue a better future suggests the lack of the spark that would lead to social change. Baudrillard similarly suggested that individuals can no longer perceive alternatives in societies in which alienation has become pervasive. Yet other theorists have presented arguments on how alienation could be limited or reversed.
In his writings on alienation, Karl Marx continued his well known advocacy for communism, arguing that the communist revolution would end alienation. This end would occur, he though, because, under communism, each worker would own a portion of the industry and would therefore be able to exert control over the process of production, thus enabling all workers to reconnect with the products of their labor. Hannah Arendt proposed a less political response to alienation. While she believed that alienation comes from the removal or withdrawal of the individual from public life, she believed that individuals could potentially continue to reveal their true selves in individual, face-to-face interactions. Alienation is not a central part of Arendt's thinking, but it is worth noting that if, as she believed, it is possible for an individual's true self to emerge under capitalism, collective resistance may yet arise.
Zygmunt Bauman saw still another way for humanity to resist alienation. To Bauman, it is the critical potential of creating new ways of thinking and being that provides the opening for possibility and thus the escape from alienation. Such transformations are possible because humans retain the capacity to build ethical relationships with one another. Alienation, he argues, is not natural, and we can always do something about it.
While Marx is the theorist with whom the notion of alienation is most closely identified, a variety of other social theorists have refined the concept...
Author: Dan Lowe
Category: Social and Political Philosophy
Word Count: 1000
Karl Marx’s thought is wide-ranging and has had a massive influence in, especially, philosophy and sociology. Marx is best known for his two unsparing critiques of capitalism. The first of these critiques maintains that capitalism is essentially alienating. The second of these critiques maintains that capitalism is essentially exploitative.1 This essay focuses specifically on Marx’s theory of alienation, which rests on Marx’s specific claims about both economics and human nature.
Marx’s Analysis of Capitalism
For Marx, the idea of the means of production is a crucial economic category. The means of production include nearly everything needed to produce commodities, including natural resources, factories, and machinery. The key element not included as part of the means of production is labor.2 In a capitalist economy, as opposed to a communist or socialist economy, the means of production are privately owned, as when a businessperson owns a factory. As a result, members of the capitalist economy find themselves divided into two distinct classes: those who own the means of production (the capitalist class3 or bourgeoisie) and those workers who do not (the proletariat).
Marx’s Concept of Species-Being
For Marx, whether capitalism and its class-division is a suitable arrangement for human beings depends on human nature. Because humans are biological beings, and not merely free-floating immaterial minds, we, like all other biological beings, must interact with and transform the natural world in order to survive.4 But what distinguishes us from all other animals, like bees, spiders, or beavers, which all transform the world based on instinct, is that we transform the world consciously and freely.5 Thus, the essence of a human being – what Marx calls our species-being – is to consciously and freely transform the world in order to meet our needs. Like many other philosophers, Marx believes that excellently doing what makes us distinctively human is the true source of fulfillment.
Alienation in Capitalist Society
We can now make clear Marx’s claim that capitalism is alienating. The general idea of alienation is simple: Something is alienating when what is (or should be) familiar and connected comes to seem foreign or disconnected. Because our species-being is our essence as human beings, it should be something that is familiar. To the extent that we are unable to act in accordance with our species-being, we become disconnected from our own nature. So if work in a capitalist society inhibits the realization of our species-being, then work is to that extent alienating.6 And since we are being alienated from our own nature, alienation is not merely a subjective feeling, but is about an objective reality.
So how are workers alienated from their species-being under capitalism? Marx distinguishes three specific ways.7
- Workers are alienated from other human beings. In a capitalist economy, workers must compete with each other for jobs and raises. But just as competition between businesses brings down the price of commodities, competition between workers brings down wages. And so it is not the proletariat who benefits from this competition, but capitalists. This is not only materially damaging to workers, it estranges them from each other. Humans are free beings and are able to not only transform the world themselves, but to cooperate in order to transform the world in more sophisticated and helpful ways. As such, they should see each other as allies, especially in the face of a capitalist class who seeks to undermine worker solidarity for its own benefit. But under capitalism workers see each other as opposing competition.
- Workers are alienated from the products of their labor. Capitalists need not do any labor themselves – simply by owning the means of production, they control the profit of the firm they own, and are enriched by it. But they can only make profit by selling commodities, which are entirely produced by workers.8 Thus, the products of the worker’s labor strengthen the capitalists, whose interests are opposed to that of the proletariat. Workers do this as laborers, but also as consumers: Whenever laborers buy commodities from capitalists, that also strengthens the position of the capitalists. This again stands in opposition to the workers’ species-being. Humans produce in response to our needs; but for the proletariat at least, strengthening the capitalist class is surely not one of those needs.
- Workers are alienated from the act of labor. Because capitalists own the firms that employ workers, it is they, not the workers, who decide what commodities are made, how they are made, and in what working conditions they are made. As a result, work is often dreary, repetitive, and even dangerous. Such work may be suitable for machines, or beings without the ability to consciously and freely decide how they want to work, but it is not suitable for human beings. Enduring this for an extended period of time means that one can only look for fulfillment outside of one’s work; while “the activity of working, which is potentially the source of human self-definition and human freedom, is … degraded to a necessity for staying alive.”9 As Marx puts it in a famous passage:
[I]n his work, therefore, he [the laborer10] does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside of work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home.11
If Marx is right about all of this, then contemporary complaints about the degrading nature of work are not hyperbole. Insofar as capitalism prevents us from realizing our own species-being, it is, quite literally, dehumanizing.
One may find great inspiration in the idea that true fulfillment can come from creative and meaningful work. Yet most people’s actual experience of work in capitalist economies is characterized by tedium, apathy, and exhaustion. Marx’s theory of alienation provides a conceptual framework for understanding the nature and cause of these experiences, and assures us that these subjective experiences are about an objective reality – and, crucially, a reality we can change.
1In general, Marx’s theory of alienation belongs to his earlier philosophy (the chapter “Estranged Labor” in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, an unfinished work that was unpublished at the time of his death), and his theory of exploitation belongs to his later philosophy (in Capital). It is a matter of scholarly debate to what extent this progression in his thinking represented a substantive change in his position, or merely a shift in emphasis.
2To keep things simple, I follow Marx in speaking of business being directed primarily at producing commodities. Of course, Marx was writing long before the development of an extensive service sector characteristic of late capitalism. Nevertheless, by tweaking some of the language, his general analysis can also be applied to service industries in capitalist economies.
3In classical political economy, a “capitalist” is someone who owns the means of production–not merely someone who is in favor of capitalism.
4This emphasis on biological embodiment distinguishes the Marxist conception of human nature from those which count rationality as the distinguishing feature of human beings — a feature which would equally apply to immaterial minds.
5Or as Marx puts it, in quasi-Hegelian language, “Conscious life-activity directly distinguishes man from animal life-activity. It is just because of this that he is a species being.” Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,” in The Marx-Engels Reader (ed. Tucker), p. 76.
6Here we are focusing on whether workers – the proletariat – are alienated under capitalism. But Marx believes that the bourgeoisie experiences its own form of alienation: see Marx’s “Alienation and Social Classes” in The Marx-Engels Reader (ed. Tucker).
7Marx is usually interpreted as presenting four distinct ways in which workers are alienated under capitalism (see, e.g., Jonathan Wolff’s “Karl Marx,” section 2.3.), and there’s strong support for that within Marx’s own writing. When looked at in that way, the fourth form of alienation just is alienation from one’s species-being. But it is more perspicuous to think of the three ways as constituting workers’ alienation from their species-being, rather than being kinds of alienation in addition to alienation from species-being. I’m grateful to Jason Wyckoff for pointing out the heterodoxy of my interpretation.
8Here we see the seeds of the second critique of capitalism that Marx would develop later: that it is exploitative.
9Richard Schmitt, Introduction to Marx and Engels: A Critical Reconstruction, p. 154.
10Marx almost always uses the masculine pronoun to refer to workers. For a discussion of applying Marx’s conceptual framework to women’s labor, both paid and unpaid, see Alison M. Jaggar’s Feminist Politics and Human Nature, especially chapters 4, 6, 8, and 10.
11Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,” in The Marx-Engels Reader (ed. Tucker), p. 74.
Jaggar, Alison M. Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1983.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader (ed. Robert C. Tucker). Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978.
Schmitt, Richard. Introduction to Marx and Engels: A Critical Reconstruction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987.
Wolff, Jonathan. “Karl Marx.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta. 2010.
About the Author
Dan Lowe is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He holds a BA from The Evergreen State College and has a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He works on ethics broadly construed, political philosophy, and feminist philosophy. His current research is in naturalized moral epistemology and philosophical methodology in general.