Theory of Alienation by Karl Marx

Theory of Alienation

In his "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844" first released in 1932 by researchers from the Soviet Union, German philosopher and economist Karl Marx presented the Theory of Alienation in which he argued that workers become estranged from their humanity as a consequence of living in a society in which capitalism is a mode of production.

The Theory of Alienation specifically argues that an individual loses the ability to determine his or her own life and destiny, as well as the capacity to direct actions and characters of these actions, define relationships with other people, and own those items produced by his or her labor. A capitalist society does this through the mechanization of an individual.

A privatized system of economic activities in which an individual is merely reduced as an instrument of productivity promotes an estrangement from humanity. In other words, a worker becomes alienated because he or she can only express labor. Nonetheless, Marx identified four types of alienation, thus arguing further that an individual worker becomes alienated in four ways.

The Four Types of Alienation

  1. Alienation of the worker from their product: The design and development of a production rest not in the hands of a worker but within the decisions of the capitalists. A worker does not have control over what he or she intends to produce or the specifications of his or her product.
  2. Alienation of the worker from the act of production: The production of goods and services within a capitalist society is repetitive and mechanical that offers little to no psychological satisfaction to the worker. Labor seems coerced because a worker undertakes this as a means of survival.
  3. Alienation of the worker from their species-essence: The species-essence or "Gattungswesen" of an individual comprises all of his or her innate potentials. Under a capitalist mode of production, an individual loses identity and the opportunity for self-development as he or she is forced to sell his or her labor-power as a market commodity.
  4. Alienation of the worker from other workers: The reduction of labor to a mere market commodity creates the so-called labor market in which a worker competes against another worker. Labor is traded in a competitive labor market instead of considering it as a constructive socioeconomic activity characterized by collective common effort.

Conclusion: The Theory of Alienation

From the perspective of Karl Marx and within the context of capitalism, alienation is the surrender of control and the separation of an essential aspect of the self. A society based on a capitalist economic system promotes norms and standards that reduce an individual worker to a mere commodity or instrument of production who lacks control over his or her vocation. Simply put, for Marx and his adherents, capitalism involves the objectification and commodification of the experiences and activities of workers.

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