Refuting Marx on Alienation
Marxism is often used as a punching bag here, and not without good reason. It has inspired ideologies which have led to millions dead, created untold misery for many more and has ultimately failed as an ideology. But this may be uncharitable to the original premises of Marxism. Marx was not a socialist or a Communist. In fact, there is a school of thought that argues, convincingly, that Marx may not have been promoting his system at all, but rather writing a mere prediction. This is an unpopular view, however, and cannot really be confirmed, as Marx is not really around to confirm it.
What this article hopes to accomplish is to refute one of the premises of Marxism – rather than attacking its bastard children. Through this, we can establish that not only are the crude misunderstandings of Marxism wrong, but so to the father.
Many of Marx’s arguments rest on the concept of Alienation, giving way to the crucial question: Are humans living the way we should and is it unjust if we are not? Alienation, in psychology and in Marx’s sense, refers to a state of othering, where aspects that should be together are apart. To Marx, the alienation of labour is one of the prime causes of misery on Earth. Under this view, man exists as a slave, alienated from himself and others, until such time as he overcomes alienation in a state of Communism.
In examining the persuasiveness of Marx’s theory of alienation, this article will be examining the four forms of alienation and determining their merit. This will be accomplished through asking three questions of each form of alienation: should the aspects in question genuinely be together, are they, in actual fact, alienated from one another and can it be overcome? In regards to the latter point, if alienation cannot be overcome, due to the aspect being a necessity, then we may need to return to the first question.
The four forms that will be examined will be alienation of our species-being, alienation from the work process, alienation from our products and alienation in worker relations. This article will ultimately find that Marx’s views of alienation are not truly cases of alienation, and that, in some cases, the logical solutions may lead to actual alienation.
Alienation from our Species-Being
Marx’s forms of alienation stem from a notion of a species-being, borrowed from Feuerbach, that Capitalism has prevented us from fulfilling. A species-being is effectively what makes us, as humans, uniquely different from other species, and as such – should fulfil as our raison d’être. This species-being is described as humans being uniquely capable of freely, creatively and socially producing.
To Marx, the essence of humanity is found in its capacity to produce even if there is no need. Production must be an end in itself for humans to fulfil their species-being. Capitalism, Marx argued, alienates humans from their species-being, as they are made to produce for reasons other than the fulfilment of creative, social production.
The pursuit of money was seen as fundamentally alienating, as workers were producing to amass wealth and not for the sake of production itself. Additionally, Marx argued that Capitalism shifted the feeling of accomplishment to be innate in money and not in the individual themselves – alienating the individual from their capacity to produce their own ends. Marx’s main critiques were that Capitalism made production a mere means to the ends of amassing wealth and staying alive, thus alienating us from our species-being.
Marx’s view is a perfectionist view, also known as Essentialism, as it ascribes a certain way of life as best for all humans. The problem with all perfectionist views is that they assume that, just because an aspect is uniquely human, that it must be our raison d’être or species-being. As Kymlicka argues, the fact that it seems that animals do not partake in rationality (in the Aristotelian view) or production (in the Marxist view) does not necessarily make it our species-being.
We can see that many people who do not partake in the Marxist conception of production can live seemingly fulfilling lives. People do want the option to do other things with their time, and perfectionist views are arrogant to presume that these individuals know less about their own lives than the critic. For example, family-life is not unique to humans, but can be fulfilling to many individuals. People have their own views and factors that contribute to their own individual sense of fulfilment.
Finally, production is not meant to be intrinsically fulfilling. One can treat it as an end in itself individually but, fundamentally, production is a means to an end. We produce to survive, to fulfil desires, to create the means to other ends. Marx wants the carpenter to produce for the sake of it while the fact of life is that he is producing because he wants a chair or a table. Production is simply a means – only an ends in as much as the individual enjoys work for the sake of it.
Alienation from the Work Process
Marx argued that the Capitalist work process alienated workers from their species-being by making work unfulfilling, deskilling and in service to another. We have already established, with the previous section, that production and work is not our species-being so, while the work process may be unpleasant, it is not necessarily alienating. Alienation implies a genuine togetherness that has come apart, but if something is not meant to be together, then it cannot be alienated. Intrinsically fulfilling work is supererogatory, not a base human necessity. Work is simply a means in itself and working under any conditions does not imply a sense of togetherness or alienation.
An additional critique of the Capitalist work process is that it is deskilling and unpleasant. While this may be unfortunate, if it is true, it is not necessarily alienating, for the aforementioned reasons. Many Marxists have since argued that the work process is unpleasant for empirical reasons and that the affluence of Capitalism only masks the destitution required to produce it. This is not an argument of alienation, however. Poverty is something we want to alleviate, but not because we necessarily feel that it alienates a person from wealth they deserve. A poor person may not deserve help, but we help them nonetheless. In this way, working conditions should improve because we want our fellow humans to be comfortable or for a reason other than alienation – for there is no compelling argument to state that humans intrinsically should have fulfilling and pleasant work.
Alienation from the Product
Marx saw alienation of the product of our labour in a variety of forms: the estrangement of our product to the Capitalist, the mystification of human creation and our powerlessness to our own creation.
The simplest form is that workers have a claim over the product of their labour and that the Capitalist is taking that product out of their possession. This implies a total ownership of the product by the worker, however. It is true that the worker is using their labour to produce a product, but this view ignores the fact that other aspects are needed to create a product. In the context of a factory, the Capitalist has to provide the capital to purchase the raw materials, the machinery, the venue and, effectively, the very means to allow the worker to produce said product. A worker voluntarily adds their labour to the means of production to create a product. They enter into this arrangement, willing to exchange their labour for remuneration that they will use as a means to other ends. Therefore, the entire product is not genuinely owned by the worker and the worker has voluntarily given up their share of the product for something they want.
Marx also argues that money itself was a product that alienates us. Money causes workers to externalise their own accomplishments into an alien entity. But that is not what money is. Money is a representation of value contributed. It is a physical manifestation of our accomplishment. Rather than enslaving us, money allows us to exchange our accomplishment for the things we desire or need – which may even lead to our fulfilment.
Market-forces, Marx argued, are a human creation that humans have become mystified by and have become slaves under. He argues that we created it, but have become dominated by it through its externalisation. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the market. The market isn’t a simple human creation like that of a smartphone, book or even ideology; it is a term given to innumerable human actions that affect us every day. Marx argues that we should not be dominated by the market, but this would imply that we can truly divorce ourselves from being affected by other humans and nature itself. It implies that humans can ascend to godliness, whereby they can never clash, or work together in tandem so effectively that individual action becomes impossible. The market is natural and, while it may seem alien, it is rather a process where we, as humans, come together and affect one another. If anything, the market brings us together, leading onto the final form of alienation.
Alienation from Relations
Capitalism puts workers in competition with one another, while money drives us apart. Marx argued that money turned human relations into commodities, where people only exist to serve the means of someone else’s production. Additionally, the desire and need to amass capital put people into conflict. Capitalism valorises competition. Humans should be united in their fulfilment of their species-being.
But are humans supposed to be permanently united? Humans are not a hive-mind. We have separate agencies and, as a result of the nature of our different lives, we are going to come to disagree with one another. We are naturally alienated from other humans, not because Capitalism drives us to compete with them, but because we simply cannot truly access the unassailable barriers to another’s mind. While post-scarcity, a requirement for Marx’s vision, may lead to a lessening of conflict, it will, in all likelihood, never lead to complete unity – until such time as we become a metaphysical collective. But this itself would be alienating from our true selves, which are naturally and genuinely separate. Even with post-scarcity, we may still clash in the way we view the world, our principles, our lot in life; humans are naturally competitive and any view that claims that this is wrong misunderstands human nature or seeks to change it in such a way that it becomes inhuman.
Marx’s entire notion of alienation rests on his perfectionist view of our species-being. If we are not fundamentally socially, creative, productive beings, then we cannot be alienated by the work process or the estrangement of our products. This article has shown that not only do we not fundamentally ascribe to Marx’s species-being, but that the perfectionist views are arrogant and presumptuous of our raison d’être.
Humans are simply too complex to relegate to a singular purpose. From this, this essay has also shown that the work process is not intrinsically alienating as work is not meant to be fulfilling for its own sake. The products of our labour are not necessarily wholly ours and workers voluntarily give up their shares of their product for remuneration. It has also shown that we are not alienated by market-forces, as we are not its sole creators. Finally, we are not alienated from our fellow workers through Capitalism, but rather through the metaphysical nature of our separate agencies. We are simply different people and we will come to conflict regardless of money, capitalism or scarcity.
Ultimately, Marxism seems more valuable as a concept of personal fulfilment that some individuals can adopt as their own conception of the good. To impose it upon all of humanity egotistically assumes the nature of all individuals and, combined with the other arguments against Marx’s notions of alienation, this article proposes that Marx’s argument are not persuasive.
Bramann, J., 2009. Marx: Capitalism and Alienation. [Online] Available at: http://faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/Marx.htm [Accessed 19 April 2016].
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Tucker, R., 1979. Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. 2nd ed. London: Cambridge University Press.
Wolff, J., 2002. Why read Marx today? Oxford: Oxford University Press.