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The existence of social alienation in todays world

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: 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.

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. 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. Marx developed a materialist theory of how human beings were shaped by the society they the existence of social alienation in todays world 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 predessesors 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. 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'.

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.

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: Marx frequently reinforced this idea, as in the following quote from Capital: He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. 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: In the Grundrisse, Marx emphasised the point: What happens to the process of work, therefore, has a decisive influence on the whole of society. Our ability the existence of social alienation in todays world 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. 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. 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'.

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.

  1. It enriches our understanding of society and can reveal something of the contradictions behind reified appearances. 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.
  2. Later Views on Alienation. In feudal landownership we already find the domination of the earth as of an alien power over men.
  3. For Marx, alienation was not rooted in the mind or in religion, as it was for his predessesors Hegel and Feuerbach. Consequently, the person is accepting that more powerful, external factors determine any development at a societal or individual level.
  4. The worker him or her self becomes devalued worth less — lower wages as a result. 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'.

The serf is an appurtenance of the land. Similarly the heir through primogeniture, the first born son, belongs to the land.

The rule of private property begins with property in land which is its basis. In an early work Marx described how 'the aristocracy's pride in their blood, their descent, in short the genealogy of the body.

The secret of the aristocracy is zoology'.

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.

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'. 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'.

The bourgeoisie wanted a society in which everything could be bought and sold for money: 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'.

Even the concept of time was radically altered so that watches, which were toys in the existence of social alienation in todays world 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'.

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 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'. 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.

Capitalism and alienation

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: 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'.

Without work, if capital ceases to exist for him, Marx argued the worker might as well bury himself alive: 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. 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. The existence of social alienation in todays world 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.

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'. 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'.