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International Socialism, July 1998


Judy Cox

An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation


From International Socialism 2:79, July 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We live in a world where technological achievements unimaginable in previous societies are within our grasp: this is the age of space travel, of the internet, of genetic engineering. Yet never before have we felt so helpless in the face of the forces we ourselves have created. Never before have the fruits of our labour threatened our very existence: this is also the age of nuclear disasters, global warming, and the arms race. For the first time in history we can produce enough to satisfy the needs of everyone on the planet. Yet millions of lives are stunted by poverty and destroyed by disease. Despite our power to control the natural world, our society is dominated by insecurity, as economic recession and military conflict devastate lives with the apparently irresistible power of natural disasters. The more densely populated our cities become, the more our lives are characterised by feelings of isolation and loneliness. To Karl Marx these contradictions were apparent when the system was still young. He noted that:

On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors of the Roman Empire. In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by loss of character. [1]

Marx developed his theory of alienation to reveal the human activity that lies behind the seemingly impersonal forces dominating society. He showed how, although aspects of the society we live in appear natural and independent of us, they are the results of past human actions. For Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács Marx’s theory ‘dissolves the rigid, unhistorical, natural appearance of social institutions; it reveals their historical origins and shows therefore that they are subject to history in every respect including historical decline’. [2] Marx showed not only that human action in the past created the modern world, but also that human action could shape a future world free from the contradictions of capitalism. Marx developed a materialist theory of how human beings were shaped by the society they lived in, but also how they could act to change that society, how people are both ‘world determined’ and ‘world producing’. For Marx, alienation was not rooted in the mind or in religion, as it was for his predecessors Hegel and Feuerbach. Instead Marx understood alienation as something rooted in the material world. Alienation meant loss of control, specifically the loss of control over labour. To understand why labour played such a central role in Marx’s theory of alienation, we have to look first at Marx’s ideas about human nature. [3]

What is human nature?

Marx opposed the common sense idea that humans have a fixed nature which exists independently of the society they live in. He demonstrated that many of the features attributed to unchanging human nature in fact vary enormously in different societies. However, Marx did not reject the idea of human nature itself. He argued that the need to labour on nature to satisfy human needs was the only consistent feature of all human societies, the ‘ever lasting nature-imposed condition of human existence’. [4] Human beings, like all other animals, must work on nature to survive. The labour of humans, however, was distinguished from that of animals because human beings developed consciousness. Marx gave a famous description of this at the beginning of Capital:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. [5]

In a useful introduction to Marx’s ideas, How to Read Karl Marx, Ernst Fischer also described what is unique about human labour. He explained how, because we act on nature consciously, we build on our successes and develop new ways of producing the things we need. This means that we have a history, whereas animals do not: ‘The species-nature of animal is an eternal repetition, that of man is transformation, development and change’. [6]

Working on nature alters not only the natural world, but also the labourer himself. Marx frequently reinforced this idea, as in the following quote from Capital: ‘By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway.’ Thus labour is a dynamic process through which the labourer shapes and moulds the world he lives in and stimulates himself to create and innovate. Marx called our capacity for conscious labour our ‘species being’.

Our species being is also a social being, as Marx explained in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844): ‘The individual is the social being.’ People have to enter into relationships with each other regardless of their personal preferences because they need to work together to get what they need to live. In the Grundrisse, Marx emphasised the point: ‘Society does not consist of individuals; it expresses the sum of connections and relationships in which individuals find themselves.’ Humanity relates to the physical world through labour; through labour humanity itself develops and labour is the source of human beings’ relationships with each other. What happens to the process of work, therefore, has a decisive influence on the whole of society.

Our ability to work, to improve how we work and build on our successes, has tended to result in the cumulative development of the productive forces. One such development gave rise to class society. When society became capable of producing a surplus, it also became possible for a class to emerge which was liberated from the need to directly produce and could live from its control over the labour of others. This process was necessary in order to develop and direct the productive forces, but it also meant that the majority of society, the producers, lost control of their labour. Thus, the alienation of labour arose with class society, and Ernst Fischer has given a brilliant description of how it reversed the limitless potential of labour:

The first tool contains within it all the potential future ones. The first recognition of the fact that the world can be changed by conscious activity contains all future, as yet unknown, but inevitable change. A living being which has once begun to make nature his own through the work of his hands, his intellect, and his imagination, will never stop. Every achievement opens the door to unconquered territory ... But when labour is destructive, not creative, when it is undertaken under coercion and not as the free play of forces, when it means the withering, not the flowering, of man’s physical and intellectual potential, then labour is a denial of its own principle and therefore of the principle of man. [7]

The emergence of class divisions in which one class had control over the means of producing what society needed, led to a further division between individuals and the society to which they belonged. Certain forms of social life ‘drive a wedge between the two dimensions of the self, the individual and the communal’ [8], producing a separation between individuals’ interests and those of society as a whole. However, alienation is not an unalterable human condition which exists unchanged in every class society.

Alienation and capitalism: all in a day’s work

In feudal society humans had not yet developed the means to control the natural world, or to produce enough to be free from famine, or to cure diseases. All social relationships were ‘conditioned by a low stage of development of the productive powers of labour and correspondingly limited relations between men within the process of creating and reproducing their material life, hence also limited relations between man and nature’. [9] Land was the source of production, and it so dominated the feudal-manorial system that men saw themselves not as individuals but in relation to the land. Marx described this in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

In feudal landownership we already find the domination of the earth as of an alien power over men. The serf is an appurtenance of the land. Similarly the heir through primogeniture, the first born son, belongs to the land. It inherits him. The rule of private property begins with property in land which is its basis. [10]

Ownership of land was dependent on inheritance and blood lines: your ‘birth’ determined your destiny. In an early work Marx described how ‘the aristocracy’s pride in their blood, their descent, in short the genealogy of the body ... has its appropriate science in heraldry. The secret of the aristocracy is zoology’. [11] It was this zoology which determined your life and your relationships with others. On the one hand, the low level of the productive forces meant constant labour for the peasants, while on the other, the feudal lords and the church officials took what they wanted from the peasants by force.

Thus alienation arose from the low level of the productive forces, from human subordination to the land and from the domination of the feudal ruling class. However, there were limits to these forms of alienation. The peasants worked their own land and produced most of the things they needed in their own independent family units. ‘If a person was tied to the land, then the land was also tied to the people ... The peasant, and even the serf of the middle ages, remained in possession of at least 50 percent, sometimes 60 and 70 percent, of the output of their labour.’ [12] The social relationships in feudal society were relationships of domination and subordination, but they were obviously social relationships between individuals. In Capital Marx described how ‘the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labour appear at all events as their own mutual personal relations, and are not disguised under the shape of social relations between the products of labour’. [13]

However, the constraints of feudalism were very different from the dynamic of capitalism. The bourgeoisie wanted a society in which everything could be bought and sold for money: ‘Selling is the practice of alienation’. [14] The creation of such a society depended on the brutal enclosures of the common land. This meant that, for the first time, the majority in society were denied direct access to the means of production and subsistence, thus creating a class of landless labourers who had to submit to a new form of exploitation, wage labour, in order to survive. Capitalism involved ‘a fundamental change in the relations between men, instruments of production and the materials of production’. [15] These fundamental changes meant that every aspect of life was transformed. Even the concept of time was radically altered so that watches, which were toys in the 17th century, became a measure of labour time or a means of quantifying idleness, because of the ‘importance of an abstract measure of minutes and hours to the work ethic and to the habit of punctuality required by industrial discipline’. [16]

Men no longer enjoyed the right to dispose of what they produced how they chose: they became separated from the product of their labour. Peter Linebaugh in his history of 18th century London, The London Hanged, explained that workers considered themselves masters of what they produced. It took great repression, a ‘judicial onslaught’, in the late 18th century to convince them that what they produced belonged exclusively to the capitalists who owned the factories. During the 18th century most workers were not paid exclusively in money. ‘This was true of Russian serf labour, American slave labour, Irish agricultural labour and the metropolitan labour in London trades.’ [17] By the 19th century, however, wage labour had replaced all other forms of payment. This meant labour was now a commodity, sold on the market. Capitalists and workers were formally independent of each other, but in reality inextricably connected. Production no longer took place in the home, but in factories where new systems of discipline operated. The mechanisation of labour in the factories transformed people’s relationship with machines, ‘those remarkable products of human ingenuity, became a source of tyranny against the worker’. [18] In Capital Marx compared the work of craftsmen and artisans to that of the factory worker:

In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool, in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machines that he must follow. In manufacture the workmen are parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes a mere living appendage. [19]

One of the most important, and devastating, features of factory production was the division of labour. Prior to capitalism there had been a social division of labour, with different people involved in different branches of production or crafts. With capitalism there arose the detailed division of labour within each branch of production. This division of labour meant that workers had to specialise in particular tasks, a series of atomised activities, which realised only one or two aspects of their human powers at the expense of all the others. Harry Braverman pointed out the consequences of this division: ‘While the social division of labour subdivides society, the detailed division of labour subdivides humans, and while the subdivision of society may enhance the individual and the species, the subdivision of the individual, when carried on without regard to human capabilities and needs, is a crime against the person and humanity’. [20] John Ruskin, the 19th century critic of industrialisation, made a similar point when he wrote that the division of labour is a false term because it is the men who are divided.

In this system workers become increasingly dependent on the capitalists who own the means of production. Just as the worker ‘is depressed, therefore, both intellectually and physically, to the level of a machine, and from being a man becomes an abstract activity and a stomach, so he also becomes more and dependent on every fluctuation in the market price, in the investment of capital and on the whims of the wealthy’. [21] It became impossible for workers to live independently of capitalism: to work meant to be reduced to a human machine; to be deprived of work meant living death. Without work, if capital ceases to exist for him, Marx argued the worker might as well bury himself alive: ‘The existence of capital is his existence, his life, for it determines the content of his life in a manner indifferent to him’. [22] There is no choice involved – work is a matter of survival. Therefore labour became forced labour; you could not choose not to work, you could not choose what you made, and you could not choose how you made it. Marx noted:

The fact that labour is external to the worker, does not belong to his essential being; that he therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labour is therefore not voluntary but forced, it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but a mere means to satisfy need outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists it is shunned like the plague. [23]

There was another side to the fragmentation of labour in the factory system. The creation of the ‘detail labourer who performed fractional work in the workshop meant that the value-producing class became collective, since no worker produced a whole commodity’. [24] This collectivity expressed itself in constant struggle against capitalist forms of production and frequent attempts by workers to assert their right to control machines rather than be controlled by them, most famously in the Luddite Rebellion of the early 19th century, a revolt so widespread that more troops were deployed to crush it than were sent to fight with Wellington at Waterloo.

Four aspects of alienation

The development of capitalism proved irresistible and it brought alienation on a scale previously unimaginable. In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (also known as the 1844, or Paris Manuscripts) Marx identified four specific ways in which alienation pervades capitalist society.

The product of labour: The worker is alienated from the object he produces because it is owned and disposed of by another, the capitalist. In all societies people use their creative abilities to produce objects which they use, exchange or sell. Under capitalism, however, this becomes an alienated activity because ‘the worker cannot use the things he produces to keep alive or to engage in further productive activity ... The worker’s needs, no matter how desperate, do not give him a licence to lay hands on what these same hands have produced, for all his products are the property of another’. [25] Thus workers produce cash crops for the market when they are malnourished, build houses in which they will never live, make cars they can never buy, produce shoes they cannot afford to wear, and so on.

Marx argued that the alienation of the worker from what he produces is intensified because the products of labour actually begin to dominate the labourer. In his brilliant Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, I.I. Rubin outlines a quantitative and a qualitative aspect to the production of commodities. Firstly, the worker is paid less than the value he creates. A proportion of what he produces is appropriated by his boss; the worker is, therefore, exploited. Qualitatively, he also puts creative labour into the object he produces, but he cannot be given creative labour to replace it. As Rubin explains, ‘In exchange for his creative power the worker receives a wage or a salary, namely a sum of money, and in exchange for this money he can purchase products of labour, but he cannot purchase creative power. In exchange for his creative power, the worker gets things’. [26] This creativity is lost to the worker forever, which is why under capitalism work does not stimulate or invigorate us and ‘open the door to unconquered territory’, but rather burns up our energies and leaves us feeling exhausted.

This domination of dead labour over living labour lies behind Marx’s assertion in the Manuscripts that ‘the alienation of the worker means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien’. [27] For Marx this state of affairs was unique to capitalism. In previous societies those who work harder could usually be expected to have more to consume. Under capitalism, those who work harder increase the power of a hostile system over them. They themselves, and their inner worlds, become poorer. ‘The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more goods he creates. The devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of the world of things’. [28]

The labour process: The second element of alienation Marx identified is a lack of control over the process of production. We have no say over the conditions in which we work and how our work is organised, and how it affects us physically and mentally. This lack of control over the work process transforms our capacity to work creatively into its opposite, so the worker experiences ‘activity as passivity, power as impotence, procreation as emasculation, the worker’s own physical and mental energy, his personal life – for what is life but activity? – as an activity directed against himself, which is independent of him and does not belong to him’. [29] The process of work is not only beyond the control of the workers, it is in the control of forces hostile to them because capitalists and their managers are driven to make us work harder, faster and for longer stints. In addition, as Harry Braverman points out, ‘in a society based upon the purchase and sale of labour power, dividing the craft cheapens its individual parts’ [30], so the bosses also have an interest in breaking down the labour process into smaller and smaller parts. The resulting rigidly repetitive process buries the individual talents or skills of the worker, as Marx described:

Factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity... The special skill of each individual insignificant factory operative vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity before the science, the gigantic physical forces, and mass of labour that are embodied in the factory mechanism and, together, with that mechanism, constitute the power of the master. [31]

Modern methods of production have increased the fragmentation of the labour process since Marx’s day. The organisation of modern production is still based on the methods of the assembly line. Scientific research is used to break the production process down into its component parts. This has led, firstly, to the deskilling of white collar jobs and to a situation where managers have a monopoly of control over the production process: ‘The unity of thought and action, conception and execution, hand and mind, which capitalism threatened from it beginnings, is now attacked by a systematic dissolution employing all the resources of science and the various engineering disciplines based upon it’. [32] Conditions of work, from the length of the working day to the space we occupy, are predetermined: ‘The entire work operation, down to it smallest motion, is conceptualised by the management and engineering staff, laid out, measured, fitted with training and performance standards – all entirely in advance’. [33] Workers are treated as machines, with the aim of transforming the subjective element of labour into objective, measurable, controlled processes. In some brilliant passages in History and Class Consciousness, Lukács describes how the increasingly rationalised and mechanised process of work affects our consciousness. As the following extract shows, his analysis was prophetic and gives a strikingly accurate picture of today’s white collar work:

In consequence of the rationalisation of the work-process the human qualities and idiosyncrasies of the worker appear increasingly as mere sources of error when contrasted with these abstract special laws functioning according to rational predictions. Neither objectively nor in his relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of this process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not. [34]

Our fellow human beings: Thirdly, we are alienated from our fellow human beings. This alienation arises in part because of the antagonisms which inevitably arise from the class structure of society. We are alienated from those who exploit our labour and control the things we produce. As Marx put it:

If his activity is a torment for him, it must provide pleasure and enjoyment for someone else ... If therefore he regards the product of his labour, his objectified labour, as an alien, hostile and powerful object which is independent of him, then his relationship to that object is such that another man – alien, hostile, powerful and independent of him – is its master. If he relates to his own activity an unfree activity, then he relates to it as activity in the service, under the rule, coercion and yoke of another man. [35]

In addition, we are connected to others through the buying and selling of the commodities we produce. Our lives are touched by thousands of people every day, people whose labour has made our clothes, food, home, etc. But we only know them through the objects we buy and consume. Ernst Fischer pointed out that because of this we do not see each other ‘as fellow-men having equal rights, but as superiors or subordinates, as holders of a rank, as a small or large unit of power’. [36] We are related to each other not as individuals but as representatives of different relations of production, the personification of capital, or land or labour. As Bertell Ollman wrote, ‘We do not know each other as individuals, but as extensions of capitalism: “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality”.’ [37] The commodities of each individual producer appear in depersonalised form, regardless of who produced them, where, or in what specific conditions. Commodity production means that everyone ‘appropriates the produce of others, by alienating that of their own labour’. [38]

Marx described how mass commodity production continually seeks to create new needs, not to develop our human powers but to exploit them for profit:

Each attempts to establish over the other an alien power, in the hope of thereby achieving satisfaction of his own selfish needs ... becomes the inventive and ever calculating slave of inhuman, refined, unnatural and imaginary appetites. He places himself at the disposal of his neighbour’s most depraved fancies, panders to his needs, excites unhealthy appetites in him, and pounces on every weakness, so that he can then demand the money for his labour of love. [39]

We see other people through the lens of profit and loss. Our abilities and needs are converted into means of making money and so we consider other human beings as competitors, as inferiors or superiors. [40]

Our human nature: The fourth element is our alienation from what Marx called our species being. What makes us human is our ability to consciously shape the world around us. However, under capitalism our labour is coerced, forced labour. Work bears no relationship to our personal inclinations or our collective interests. The capitalist division of labour massively increased our ability to produce, but those who create the wealth are deprived of its benefits. Marx’s descriptions of this process in the Manuscripts are extremely powerful indictments of the system:

It is true that labour produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It procures beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labour by machines, but it casts some of the workers back into barbarous forms of labour and turns others into machines. It produces intelligence, but it produces idiocy and cretinism for the worker. [41]

Human beings are social beings. We have the ability to act collectively to further our interests. However, under capitalism that ability is submerged under private ownership and the class divisions it produces. We have the ability to consciously plan our production, to match what we produce with the developing needs of society. But under capitalism that ability is reversed by the anarchic drive for profits. Thus, rather than consciously shaping nature, we cannot control, or even foresee, the consequences of our actions. For example, new, cheaper techniques of production may, when repeated across industry, produce acid rain or gases which destroy the ozone layer.

Similarly, when one capitalist improves production in his factory, he is unwittingly contributing to the slowing up of the rate of profits for his class as a whole by lowering the rate of profit. [42] One firm can produce to fulfil a particularly sharp demand, only to find when the goods hit the market that other firms got there first. Instead of simply meeting demand, there is a glut in the market. This means that we produce more but what we produce is unwanted. All previous societies suffered from shortages, famines and the failure of crops. Under capitalism recessions mean that workers ‘consume less because they produce too much. And they consume less, not because their labour is inadequately productive, but because their labour is too productive.’ [43] There is nothing natural about the economic crises we face: it is our social organisation which prevents us enjoying the potential of our ability to produce.

What is commodity fetishism?

The domination of commodities in our society is so pervasive that it seems to be an inevitable, natural state of affairs. All our achievements, everything we produce, appear as commodities, as Marx noted: ‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an immense collection of commodities’. [44] Capitalism is the first system of generalised commodity production, in which the commodity has become ‘a universal category of society as a whole’. [45] The dominance of commodity production has implications for how we experience the world we have created.

The mysterious commodity: In every society human beings have laboured to created objects which help them fulfil their needs. So Marx began his analysis of commodities under capitalism by asserting that ‘a commodity is an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind’, regardless of whether that need comes from stomach or the imagination. [46] Commodities must have a use value, but they also have an exchange value. In capitalist society our many different human needs can only be met through the purchase of commodities: to eat we have to buy food in a shop, to travel we have to buy a car or a bus ticket, to have access to knowledge we have to buy books, TVs or computers. Yet the usefulness of all these commodities is overwhelmed by their exchange value and the satisfaction of human needs becomes inseparable from the workings of the market. [47]

The circulation of commodities on the market is even more cloaked in mystery than the process of their production, where workers have some direct relationship with the commodity they produce. This relationship is lost when commodities are sent to market and exchanged for money, which, in turn, is exchanged for other commodities. As Marx wrote, ‘The actual process of production, as a unity of the direct production process and the circulation process, gives rise to new formations, in which the vein of internal connections is increasingly lost, the production relations are rendered independent of one another, and the component values become ossified into forms independent of one another’. [48] Marx explained how the circulation of commodities transforms relationships between individual producers into relationships between the commodities they produce. They are divided from each other, yet utterly dependent on each other’s commodities:

The owners of commodities find out that the division of labour which turns them into independent private producers also makes the social process of production and the relations of the individual producers to each other within that process independent of the producers themselves; they also find out that the independence of the individuals from each other has its counterpart and supplement a system of all-round material dependence. [49]

In the capitalist system individuals have to possess certain things – labour power, or materials of production, for example – in order to enter into productive relationships with each other. As a consequence, ‘it seems as if the thing itself possesses the ability, the virtue, to establish production relations’, rather than the individuals themselves. [50] Commodities acquire social characteristics because individuals enter the productive process only as the owners of commodities. Marx described this process: ‘To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things’. [51] Thus it appears as if the market itself causes the rise and fall of prices, and pushes workers into one branch of production or out of another, independent of human agency. ‘The impact of society on the individual is carried out through the social form of things’. [52] This adds another dimension to alienated relationships because, as Marx argued, ‘the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations; it is as the bearers of these economic relations that they come into contact with each other’. [53]

Marx described the whole process of the reification of human relationships, the attribution of human powers to inanimate objects, and the way in which social organisation appears as independent of human will as commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism has increased with the growth of capitalism, in which ‘the capitalist mode of production takes over the totality of individual, family, and social needs and, in subordinating them to the market, also reshapes them to serve the needs of capital’. [54] Today there is a market for everything, for sex and art, for labour itself, as well as for TVs and cars. As Ernst Fischer wrote, ‘We have become so accustomed to living in a world of commodities, where nature is perhaps only a poster for a holiday resort and man only an advertisement for a new product, we exist in such a turmoil of alienated objects offered cheaply for sale, that we hardly ask ourselves any longer what it is that magically transforms objects of necessity (or fashion) into commodities, and what is the true nature of the witches’ Sabbath, ablaze with neon moons and synthetic constellations, that has become our day to day reality’. [55]

Money: the ‘universal pimp’: The creation of exchange values and the circulation of commodities requires a commodity which can represent all other commodities, through which all other commodities can be compared. Marx described how the development of capitalism brought with it the problem of how to evaluate different commodities and simultaneously created the solution in the form of money, the universal commodity. Physical objects, gold or silver become the ‘direct incarnation of all human labour’. With the development of money people’s relationship to their production assumes a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious action: ‘This situation is manifested first by the fact that the products of men’s labour universally take on the form of commodities. The riddle of the money fetish is therefore the riddle of the commodity fetish, now become visible and dazzling to our eyes’. [56]

Marx called money the ‘universal pimp’, mediating between men and their desires. The value of money, the metals in which it was originally embodied, have long since been discarded in favour of intrinsically worthless alloy metal coins or paper money. And yet money can buy everything – it is the most powerful commodity in existence: ‘Money is all other commodities divested of their shape, the product of their universal alienation’. [57] The role of money in the circulation of commodities shapes the consciousness of human beings involved in that process. Money takes on the value of the objects it represents, it appears to be the force which can create value itself. As Meszaros explains:

Money is taken to possess these colossal powers as natural attributes. People’s attitude toward money is, undoubtedly, the outstanding instance of capitalist fetishism, reaching its height in interest bearing capital. Here, people think they see money creating more money, self-expanding value ... workers, machines, raw materials – all the factors of production – are downgraded to mere aids, and money itself is made the producer of wealth. [58]

Thus money acquires great abilities, but on the other side of the coin, all our human desires and abilities contract into what Marx called a sense of having: ‘Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when we directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it, etc., in short, when we use it’. [59] Marx also described how this desire for possession is both stimulated and denied: ‘The worker is only permitted to have enough for him to live, and he is only permitted to live in order to have’. [60] In a particularly perceptive passage from the Manuscripts, Marx explains how money submerges our personalities. It is a brilliant rejoinder to those who argue that capitalism allows our individuality to flourish:

That which exists for me through the medium of money, that which I can pay for, i.e. which money can buy, that am I, the possessor of the money. The stronger the power of my money, the stronger I am. The properties of money are my, the possessors’, properties and essential powers. Therefore what I am and what I can do is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy the most beautiful women. Which means to say that I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness, its repelling power, is destroyed by money. As an individual I am lame, but money procures me 24 legs. Consequently, I am not lame. I am a wicked, dishonest, unscrupulous individual, but money is respected, and so also is its owner ... through money I can have anything the human heart desires. Do I not therefore possess all human abilities? Does not money therefore transform all my incapacities into their opposite? [61]

Commodity fetishism and class: Alienation and commodity fetishism shape all relationships in society. Those who possess wealth also inhabit a world beyond their control, in which relationships are reified. Their individuality is submerged by the dictates of capitalism – as Marx wrote, the instinct to enrich himself, which ‘in a miser is a mere idiosyncrasy, is, in the capitalist, the effect of the social mechanism, of which he is but one of the wheels’. [62] The huge productive forces owned by the ruling class may bring them riches beyond our imaginings, but they cannot control the vast economic forces of the system or even plan any section of it accurately. The capitalists are caught in a contradiction, that ‘capital is a social force, but it is privately, rather than collectively, owned so its movements are determined by individual owners necessarily indifferent to all the social implications of their activities’. [63] The capitalist has constantly to compete in order to keep up with his competitors and while his actions may be perfectly sensible for the individual firm, when generalised across society they cause the economic recessions which can destroy many firms. Economic crises are irrefutable proof that the system is more powerful than any individual capitalist. This explains why crises are such a massive blow to the confidence and ideology of the ruling class. The capitalist may like to believe that his daring, entrepreneurial spirit creates his wealth, but in reality he ‘rides a wave another has created’. [64] The class struggle, which he cannot prevent, brings home forcibly how dependent he is on the labour of his employees, and, like economic crises, is a wounding blow to the outlook of the ruling class.

In The Holy Family Marx gives a brilliant description of the situation of the ruling class:

The possessing class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class feels at home in this self-alienation, it finds confirmation of itself and recognises in alienation its own power; it has in it a semblance of human existence, while the class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees therein its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. [65]

Thus, no matter how deeply alienation affects them, the ruling class will always be driven to defend the system that creates their alienation with all the power and brutality at their disposal because of their material position within it. In addition to this, Lukács argued that the ruling class can never rise above the commodity fetishism of capitalism. The bourgeoisie can never recognise the real nature of capitalism without confronting their own role as exploiters and upholders of the system. Therefore the capitalists do not want to recognise the real social relationships which underlie the institutions of capitalist society. They prefer to continue believing that the relations of production are natural and inevitable. In contrast, Lukács argued that workers, though also shaped by commodity fetishism, were not permanently blinded to the reality of capitalism. Rather he argued that the working class is in a unique position to be able to tear the veil of reification from capitalism because its struggle against capitalism reveals its real own role in producing the wealth of society. Class struggle means that workers no longer see themselves as isolated individuals. It means that they can become conscious of the social character of labour. Lukács suggests that when workers glimpse the reality behind commodity fetishism it can help them to realise the need for a revolutionary transformation of society: ‘This enables us to understand why it is only in the proletariat that the process by which a man’s achievement is split off from his total personality and becomes a commodity leads to a revolutionary consciousness’. [66]

The uses and abuses of Marx’s theory

The concept of alienation is a central but controversial aspect of Marxism. When Marx’s key work on alienation, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, was eventually published in 1932, it had a dramatic impact on the tradition known as ‘Western Marxism’, which included writers like Herbert Marcuse and John Paul Sartre. [67] However, in the hands of the Western Marxists, the theory of alienation became intermingled with idealist theories, which explained alienation in terms of psychology rather than the organisation of society. The New Left which emerged in the late 1950s reacted against the theory and practice of Stalinism, but some of the writers associated with the New Left threw the Marxist baby out with the Stalinist bathwater. They abandoned some central aspects of Marxism, such as the central role of the economic structure in shaping the rest of society and the objective class antagonisms at the heart of capitalism. As Perry Anderson wrote, ‘The most striking single trait of Western Marxism as a common tradition is thus perhaps the constant presence and influence on it of successive types of European idealism’. [68] Alienation was seized upon to explain the miseries of modern life, and the ‘lonely crowd’, ‘those aggregations of atomised city dwellers who feel crushed and benumbed by the weight of a social system in which they have neither significant purpose nor decision-making power’. [69] Alienation came to refer predominately to a state of mind, rather than an understanding of how social organisation affected human beings.

Typical of the confused ideas about alienation fashionable in some quarters at this time is a book edited by Eric and Mary Josephson, Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society, first published in 1962 and reprinted eight times before 1968. For the Josephsons, alienation describes ‘the untold lives of quiet desperation that mark our age’, and the long list of those suffering from alienation includes such diverse group as women, immigrants, sexual deviants, drug addicts, young people and artists. [70] But the editors understand alienation exclusively as a psychological state, ‘referring to an extraordinary variety of psycho-social disorders, including loss of field, anxiety states, anomie, despair, depersonalisation, rootlessness, apathy, social disorganisation, loneliness, atomisation, powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, pessimism, and the loss of beliefs and values’. [71] If alienation is only a specific psychological problem, then it follows that the solution to alienation must be sought exclusively in the individual consciousness. If alienation is predominantly a state of mind, there is an implication that it can be cured without fundamentally changing the organisation of society. As Eric Fromm suggested, forms of alienation were ‘chains of illusion’ which can be broken within the context of capitalist society, because they arise from ‘stereotyped alternatives of thinking’. [72]

However, Marx’s writings on alienation, from the Manuscripts to the Grundrisse and Capital, demonstrate that for him alienation was not merely a state of mind. The roots of the individual psyche were to be located in how society as a whole is organised. As one Marxist described it, ‘The life activity of the alienated individual is qualitatively of a kind. His actions in religion, family affairs, politics and so on, are as distorted and brutalised as his productive activity ... There is no sphere of human activity that lies outside these prison walls’. [73] Marx’s theory offers us an indispensable method of understanding how the production process shapes the whole of society. There are two areas of activity which are particularly controversial in relation to alienation. This first is the place of intellectual, or mental labour, and creativity in alienated production.

The division of labour described in this article leads to a sharp division between work and creativity. Work is regimented, broken down into separate tasks. The creative elements in each process are dispersed into a million fragments. Labour itself is a commodity and its value is determined by the labour time which went into its creation, for example, the amount spent on training or educating a worker. A highly skilled technician or engineer will therefore be paid more than an unskilled labourer. As Braverman wrote, ‘In this way, a structure is given to all labour process that at its extremes polarises those whose time is infinitely valuable and those whose time is worth almost nothing’. [74] However, this does not mean that the intellectual whose time is valuable escapes from the general pattern of alienation. On the contrary, one of the features of modern capitalism is the commercialisation of knowledge. [75] The design of a microchip or computer software is just as much the property of the capitalist as a tin of beans or a car. Capitalists enrich themselves through the appropriation of mental labour in the same way as they do through material labour.

The social division of labour undermines the potential of intellectuals to discover new truths about society. As Franz Jakubowski wrote,

The social division of labour creates a series of sub-spheres, not only in the economy but in the whole of social life and thought. These develop their own autonomous sets of laws. As a result of specialisation, each individual sphere develops according to the logic of its own specific object. [76]

Intellectual activity takes place within these limitations, in isolation from society as a whole. In the end, the individual sciences ‘cannot understand either the method of the principle of even their own concrete substratum of reality’. [77] All the potential we have to develop new techniques and methods is subordinated to competition. The very structure of capitalist society condemns our intellectual developments to the chase of facts in blind isolation from the real movements of society. This does not mean that nothing useful can be developed, rather that research takes place within a framework which constrains and limits its development.

The same processes are at work in the production and consumption of art in capitalist society. As Eugene Lunn explained in his excellent book Marxism and Modernism, bourgeois society offers artistic freedom on one hand and snatches it back with the other: ‘Bourgeois society – with all its progressive advance over “feudal” constrictions – is also inimical to many forms of art, for example because of division of labour, the mechanisation of many forms of human activity, and the predominance of quantitative over qualitative concerns’. [78] Marx argued that artists, like scientists and intellectuals, could not escape from the general conversion of all human creativity into commodities. Firstly this is because artists, like all other workers, are dependent on their ability to make money: ‘The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyers, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers’. [79] Secondly, Lunn points out how commodity production shapes art. The fact that works of art are sold on the market shapes every level of their conception and production. Marx gave one example of this in his critique of the novels of Eugene Sue, in which he ‘stresses the influence upon the author of the ethical and political assumptions of its intended bourgeois public’. [80] Neither can art escape commodity fetishism: ‘If one form of spiritualising mystification has been eroded by expansion of commerce – the romantic apotheosis of the arts as soaring above material reality – a new fetishism has replaced it: the fetishism of commodities’. [81] This also points to how new, challenging cultural developments are rapidly incorporated into the system as mere commodities.

This does not mean that works of art can be reduced to exactly the same status as a tin of beans. Art stimulates our imagination and emotions. It enriches our understanding of society and can reveal something of the contradictions behind reified appearances: ‘It can pierce through the ideological clouds which enshroud social realities.’ Some artists devote their energies to attempting to reach beyond capitalism, while others choose to celebrate the system as it exists, but even then the art they produce can penetrate the reified appearance of capitalism. As Lunn wrote:

We cannot reduce art to exchange rates reflecting the pervasive alienation. Even with its halo removed, art was capable of diagnosing, and pointing beyond alienating social and economic conditions... All art has the capacity to create a need for aesthetic enjoyment and education which capitalism cannot satisfy. Although coming increasingly under the influence of the marketplace, art is produced and consumed in relative autonomy and is not identical to factory work or to a pure commodity. [82]

The second controversial application of Marx’s theory of alienation is in the formulation of an analysis of other activities outside the sphere of work, which we undertake through choice rather than necessity. The more the world of work confronts us as hostile, exhausting and miserable, the more people pour their energies into their lives outside work. As the system develops new markets are constantly being carved out of our needs and wishes. For example, consider the multimillion pound industries which have developed around commodities which are said to make us look thin or young, our desire to play games, to experience nature or enjoy art. The very fact that we have the ‘leisure industry’ and the ‘entertainment industry’ points to the fact that the separation of work from leisure has left a void in our free hours: ‘Thus filling time away from the job also becomes dependent upon the market, which develops to an enormous degree those passive amusements, entertainments, and spectacles that suit the restricted circumstances of the city and are offered as substitutes for life itself’. [83]

The retreat into the privatised world of the individual and the family is a pronounced feature of life in the 1990s. Adopting particular lifestyles seems to offer the only real chance of personal fulfilment. Hence the increasing fascination for TV programmes and magazines about fashion, cooking, holidays and gardening and the boom in the Do-It-Yourself market. The family and the home have become leisure activities in and of themselves; they have also become subject to the priorities of the market. All the commodities which could increase our free time simply reinforce the family as a unit of consumption not an emotional haven: ‘As the advances of modern household and service industries lighten the family labour, they increase the futility of family life; as they remove the burden of personal relations, they strip away its affections; as they create an intricate social life, they rob it of every vestige of community and leave in its place the cash nexus’. [84]

In addition, Meszaros describes how the retreat into private life simply increases the power of capitalism over us: ‘The cult of privacy and of individual autonomy thus fulfils the dual function of objectively protecting the established order against challenge by the rabble, and subjectively providing a spurious fulfilment in an escapist withdrawal to the isolated and powerless individual who is mystified by the mechanisms of capitalist society which manipulate him’. [85] Meszaros also makes the point that alienation has deprived us of our ability to have genuinely human relationships. We are forced to seek compensation for the loss of our humanity in the limited area of our privatised personal lives, yet this merely reinforces our alienation from each other: ‘To seek the remedy in autonomy is to be on the wrong track. Our troubles are not due to a lack of autonomy but, on the contrary, to a social structure – a mode of production – that forces on men a cult of it, isolating them from each other’. [86]

Our attempts to express the creativity of which capitalism has deprived us cannot negate the totality of alienation. The eradication of alienation depends on the transformation of society as a whole. However we organise our personal lives and leisure time, we cannot individually fulfil our collective ability to shape the natural world we live in. Lifestyles and leisure activities cannot liberate us from alienation, or even create little islands of freedom in an ocean of alienation. As alienation is rooted in capitalist society, only the collective struggle against that society carries the potential to eradicate alienation, to bring our vast, developing powers under our conscious control and reinstitute work as the central aspect of life. As Marx wrote in Capital, ‘The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men and stands under their conscious and planned control’. [87]


1. K. Marx, Speech at the Anniversary of the Peoples’ Paper, quoted in E. Lunn, Marxism and Modernism (University of California Press 1984), p. 31.

2. G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Merlin 1971), p. 47.

3. Marx was not the first to develop an analysis of human alienation. Marx’s philosophical predecessor, Hegel, saw alienation as part of the development of the human mind. Ludwig Feuerbach put forward a materialist analysis of alienation, pointing out how men transfer the power to change the world to imaginary gods, but he believed that religious alienation could be eradicated through rational argument alone. Marx broke from both Hegel’s idealist concept of alienation and the ahistorical materialism of Feuerbach. For an introduction to Marx’s theoretical background, see A. Callinicos, The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (Bookmarks 1996), ch. 3.

4. Quoted in E. Fischer, How to Read Karl Marx (Monthly Review Press 1996), p. 53.

5. Ibid., p. 52.

6. Ibid., p. 51.

7. Ibid., p. 54.

8. T. Eagleton, Marx (Phoenix 1997), p. 27.

9. K. Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (Penguin 1976), p. 173.

10. K. Marx, Early Writings (Penguin 1975), p. 318.

11. Quoted in P. Walton and A. Gamble, From Alienation to Surplus Value (Sheed and Ward 1972), p. 20.

12. E. Mandel and G. Novak, The Marxist Theory of Alienation (Pathfinder 1970), p. 20.

13. Capital, op. cit., p. 170.

14. K. Marx quoted in I. Meszaros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation (Merlin Press 1986), p. 35.

15. P. Linebaugh, The London Hanged (Penguin, 1993), p. 396.

16. Ibid., p. 225.

17. Ibid., p. 374.

18. Ibid., p. 24.

19. Capital, op. cit., p. 460.

20. H. Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capitalism (Monthly Review Press 1974), p. 73.

21. K. Marx, Early Writings, op. cit., p. 285.

22. Ibid., p. 335.

23. Ibid., p. 326.

24. P. Linebaugh, op. cit., p. 225.

25. B. Ollman, Alienation (Cambridge University Press 1996), p. 143.

26. I.I. Rubin, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value (Black Rose Books 1975), p. xxv.

27. K. Marx, Early Writings, p. 324.

28. E. Fischer, op. cit., p. 67.

29. Ibid., p. 327.

30. H. Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capitalism (Monthly Review Press 1974), p. 80.

31. E. Fischer, op. cit., pp. 58–9.

32. H. Braverman, op. cit., p. 171.

33. Ibid., p. 180.

34. G. Lukács, op. cit., p. 89.

35. K. Marx, Early Writings, op. cit., p. 331.

36. E. Fischer, op. cit., p. 63.

37. B. Ollman, op. cit., p. 144.

38. Rubin, op. cit., p. 15.

39. K. Marx, Early Writings, op. cit., p. 359.

40. There is a brilliant description of one facet of this experience in C. Caudwell, The Concept of Freedom (Lawrence and Wishart 1977), p. 49.

41. K. Marx, Early Writings, op. cit., p. 325.

42. See C. Harman, Economics of the Madhouse (Bookmarks 1995).

43. E. Mandel, op. cit., p. 22.

44. K. Marx, Capital, op. cit., p. 125.

45. Ibid., p. 125.

46. Ibid., p. 1.

47. See ibid., p. 165.

48. Quoted in B. Ollman, op. cit., p. 187.

49. K. Marx, Capital, op. cit., pp. 202–203.

50. Ibid., p. 21.

51. Ibid., pp. 165–165.

52. Ibid., p. 24.

53. Ibid., p. 179.

54. H. Braverman, op. cit., p. 271.

55. E. Fischer, op. cit., p. 68.

56. Ibid., p. 187.

57. Ibid., p. 205.

58. I. Meszaros, op. cit., p. 197.

59. K. Marx, Early Writings, op. cit., p. 351.

60. Ibid., p. 361.

61. Ibid., p. 377.

62. K. Marx, quoted in G. Lukács, op. cit., p. 133.

63. Ibid., p. 63.

64. B. Ollman, op. cit., p. 154.

65. K. Marx, The Holy Family, quoted in F. Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism (Pluto 1990), p. 87.

66. G. Lukács, op. cit., p. 171.

67. P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (New Left Books 1976), pp. 50–51.

68. Ibid., p. 56.

69. E. Mandel, op. cit., p. 6.

70. E. and M. Josephson, Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society (Dell Publishing Co 1968), p. 12.

71. Ibid., p. 13.

72. Ibid., ch. 1.

73. B. Ollman, op. cit., p. 202.

74. H. Braverman, op. cit., p. 83.

75. See, for instance, G. Carchedi, Frontiers of Political Economy (Verso 1991), p. 18.

76. F. Jakubowski, op. cit., p. 96.

77. Ibid., p. 96.

78. E. Lunn, op. cit., p. 15.

79. Ibid., p. 16.

80. Ibid., p. 12.

81. Ibid., p. 16.

82. Ibid., pp. 15–16.

83. H. Braverman, op. cit., p. 278.

84. Ibid., p. 282.

85. I. Meszaros, op. cit., p. 26.

86. Ibid., p. 267.

87. K. Marx, Capital, op. cit., p. 173.

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