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Alfredo Lucero-Montaño

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Notes: Marx on Alienated Labor



Marx presents the phenomenon of the alienation of the worker under various aspects: a) the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor; b) the alienation of the worker in the process of production; c) the alienation of the worker as a species-being; and d) the alienation of man from the others.


In all these cases, the subject of alienation is the worker, and it takes place in the activity of labor. But the phenomenon doesn’t change; what changes is the focus to understand it. Marx will also see another type of alienated subject, that of the no-worker, who has its own characteristic features. In this sense, alienation is not exclusive of the worker, but of course it is fundamental. The outcome in our contemporary society is that the process of alienation has extended from the process of production to the process of consumption, to wit, it is today a universal feature. The process affects not also the worker and the no-worker, but also the consumer, by the means of creating alienated needs.


a) The alienation of the worker from the product of his labor. The aim of the analysis is the product, that is, the object that does not exist by itself but as a result of the human activity per excellence: labor. The product refers to the man that produces it, because it is his product. Marx writes: “the object which labor produces, its product, stands opposed to it as an alien thing, as a power independent of the producer” (Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in Selected Writings, Indianapolis, 1994, p. 59). Here Marx does not say that the product is something alien to the worker --he couldn’t-- because the product any way it stands in front of man it is his product. Thereby Marx says it stands opposed to the subject as an alien thing. The objects--been his products--stand as aliens.


But this way the object stands opposite to man is like an independent power. This claim is related to the ‘deprivation of reality’ of the worker. The reality of the worker as a producer vanishes in front of the object as an independent power. The worker produces, creates wealth, and in this process of creation that defines man, is where it takes place this loss of reality: “All these consequences follow from the fact that the worker is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object. For it is clear according to this premise: The more the worker exerts himself, the more powerful becomes the alien objective world which he fashions against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, the less there is that belongs to him (p. 60).


Here Marx remarks the subjective, psychological side of alienation, that is, the worker’s attitude toward the object he himself has produced; and this attitude consists to see it as an alien thing, unable to identify himself with it. But there is also an objective side: “The realization of labor is its objectification…that the worker is diminished to the point of starvation” (pp. 59-60). For Marx the subjective-objective aspects of alienation are intrinsically related: “The externalization of the worker in his product means not only that his work becomes an object, an external existence, but also that it exists outside him independently, alien, an autonomous power, opposed to him” (p. 60). This external existence of the object as an alien and hostile power, turns the worker into a slave of his own product: “the worker becomes a slave to his objects; first, in that he receives an object of labor, that is, he receives labor, and secondly, that he receives the means of subsistence. The first enables him to exist as a worker and the second as a physical subject” (pp. 60-61). The worker can only work physically living, and he can only live physically working for the means of subsistence.


In the following passage, Marx states the direct relation between the worker and his products: “The alienation of the worker in his object is expressed according to the laws of political economy as follows: the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume; the more values he creates the more worthless and unworthy he becomes; the better shaped his product, the more misshapen is he; the more civilized his product, the more barbaric is the worker; the more powerful the work, the more powerless becomes the worker; the more intelligence the work has, the more witless is the worker and the more he becomes a slave of nature” (p. 61). These facts show the direct relation between labor and the worker, the worker and his products, and labor and production.


b) Alienation in the process of production. The alienation is also shown in the relation between the worker and his activity. The alienation of the product necessarily presupposes the alienation of the activity that leads to it. There is no dependence between both forms of alienation, but a reciprocal relation. For the object is the result of an alienated activity, the alienation of the product is related to that activity: “How could the worker stand in an alien relationship to the product of his activity if he did not alienate himself from himself in the very act of production? After all, the production is only the résumé of activity, of production. If the product of work is externalization, production itself must be active externalization, externalization of activity, activity of externalization. Only alienation—and externalization in the activity of labor itself—is summarized in the alienation of the object of labor” (p. 61).


Marx distinguishes three features in the alienation of producing activity:


 i) The externalization of labor: “First is the fact that labor is external to the laborer—that is, it is not part of his nature—and that the worker does not affirm himself in his work but denies himself, feels miserable and unhappy, develops no free physical and mental energy but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind” (pp. 61-62). Here the idea of alienation of labor presupposes the idea that labor is a part of the worker’s essence. If labor is part of the essence of man, alienated labor is external to such essence. But here the objective and subjective aspects are congenial: “The worker…feels at ease only outside work, and during work he is outside himself. He is at home when he is not working and when he is working he is not at home” (p. 62).


ii) Coercitivity or forced labor: “His work…is not voluntary, but coerced, forced labor. It is not the satisfaction of a need but only a means to satisfy other needs. Its alien character is obvious from the fact that as soon as no physical or other pressure exists, labor is avoided like the plague” (Ibidem). External labor, labor in which man is externalized, is labor of self-sacrifice, of penance. The exteriority of labor necessarily implies its coercitivity, since the worker cannot voluntarily do any labor that does not satisfy his own need, and that is only mean of other’s needs.


iii) Loss of himself in labor: “the external nature of work for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own but another person’s, that in work he does not belong to himself but someone else” (Ibidem). The worker’s labor is not his labor, but the mean to satisfy other’s needs. Inasmuch as it is not his labor, he also is not himself in his activity.


c) Alienation of man as species-being. Marx defines species-being in the following terms: “Man is a species-being not only in that he practically and theoretically makes his own species as well as that of other things his object, but also…in that as present and living species he considers himself to be a universal and consequently free being” (Ibidem). Here Marx introduces a difference with respect of Feuerbach, namely, that man does not makes himself the species theoretically, as the object of consciousness, but also practically inasmuch the objects are due to labor. Therefore man proves himself to be a species-being through the “practical creation of an objective world, the treatment of inorganic nature… [thanks to it,] nature appears as his work and his actuality” (pp. 63-64).


Man’s species-life is labor, to wit, productive life: “The object of labor is thus the objectivation of man’s species-life: he produces himself not only intellectually, as in consciousness, but also actively in a real sense and sees himself in a world he made” (p. 64). Labor as man’s species-life means conscious, creative and free life. Life inherently human is man’s life as species-being, or life as an end in itself: “Productive life…is species-life. It is life begetting life. In the mode of life activity lies the entire character of a species, its species-character; and free conscious activity is the species-character of man” (p. 63).


But what the alienation of man’s species-life means? Alienated labor alienates species-life from man, that is, changes man’s species-life into a simple means of individual life: “life activity…appear[s] to man…as a means to satisfy a need, the need to maintain physical existence” (Ibidem). In other words, alienates species-life and individual life, and it turns the latter in its abstract form into the purpose of the former. “Alienated labor reverses the relationship in…man…makes his life activity, his essence, only a means for his existence” (Ibidem).


d) Alienation of man from man. “A direct consequence of man’s alienation from the product of his work, from his life activity, and from his species-existence, is the alienation of man form man…the statement that man is alienated from his species-existence means that one man is alienated from another just as each man is alienated from human nature” In sum: “ The alienation of man, the relation of man to himself, is realized and expressed in the relation between man and other men” (p. 64).


For Marx, the alienation is not present only from the point of view of the relation between subject-object; from the relation of the subject with its activity, or the relation of the subject with its own species-being, but also in the relation of one subject to another. It is precisely in the later relation that takes place the intimate relation between the different forms, or determinations, of the same phenomenon. Certainly, the worker can only alienate himself respect the product, and his activity, inasmuch as he maintains a certain relation with the other. Alienation of labor produces not only an alien object, and an alien activity, but produces also a real relation that men stand themselves in an external and hostile relation.


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