Marx for dummies.
February 13, 2006 6:07 PM   Subscribe

MarxFilter: Trouble understanding the concept of "alienation of labor" in the Manuscripts of 1844. Can anyone explain to me exactly what he means?

Looking for a concise plain-language breakdown of Marx's concept of the alienation of labor. I've been trying to wrap my head around it all day and secondary sources on the internet haven't been very illuminating. I grasp that if labor is occupied in producing an object, that time spent in production comes at the expense of the laborer's own time to pursue what it wishes (be a human). However, with regards to an individuals relationship to the actual object that is produced, in what sense is there alienation? From the objects' uses? Is what Marx implies that in a way a laborer doesn't "understand" the outcome of their work?

As an addendum, if anyone could recommend great secondary texts, please mention as well, as I'm sure this won't be the last question I have on the topic...
posted by lovejones to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Alienation of labor:

Let's say you're a baker. You bake bread all day and you sell the loaves to people in your community. Your bread is a reflection of yourself. You take pride in what you do because you are personally responsible for transforming flour, yeast, and water into loaves of bread. Furthermore, you know that the people in your community love your bread because you see them when they come to your bakery to buy it.

Here's where the alienation comes in: Your bakery gets run out of business by an industrial food plant. You're rehired at minimum wage to pour flour into a vat and press a button. You no longer see the product of your labor and you have no contact with your customers. Rather than selling bread to patrons, you are selling your labor force to your boss. Thus, the product of your labor is alien to you, and you have been alienated.
posted by The White Hat at 6:17 PM on February 13, 2006 [3 favorites]

Read it as "alienation from labor" and it may make a tad more sense.
posted by piro at 6:23 PM on February 13, 2006

The thing is, Bob, it's not that I'm lazy.It's just that I just don't care.

Don't, don't care?

It's a problem of motivation, all right?Now, if I work my ass off and Initechships a few extra units, I don't seeanother dime. So where's the motivation?And here's another thing, Bob. I haveeight different bosses right now!

posted by idontlikewords at 6:50 PM on February 13, 2006


"Marx: Alienated Labor" from Reason & Revolution by Herbert Marcuse (from general reference guide Marxism and Alienation here).


"Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in a Capitalist Society" by Bertell Ollman

"Politics Out of History" pp. 73-77 by Wendy Brown

"Politics and Vision: Expanded Edition" pp. 362, 418, 419, 430 by Sheldon Wolin

Less lucid: "Understanding Marx" by Robert Paul Wolff

May also help to compare Marx's "alienation" to Emile Durkheim's concept of "anomie" and/or Max Weber's discussions of the "Iron Cage."
posted by slow, man at 9:58 PM on February 13, 2006

Alienation of labor is a bit more complicated and subtle than White Hat's example. The real idea here is that each person in a society is subject to teleological criteria and the primary criteria is that person's labor--literally, what they do day in and day out. It goes beyond mere pride; the baker's identity--both the way he views himself and others view him--is primarily driven by the fact that he's not just a baker but a good baker. If you take this (really very extreme) view of labor--that a man's labor makes the man--than a just society would view labor as an end in itself. Capitalism of course views labors only as a means. The alienation that arises is really Kant's alienation then, this idea that men (and their labor) are purely means and not ends in themselves. A somewhat better example would be to examine what a market does to primitive farmer societies. In this case, you clearly see people make a transition from being a farmer out of tradition (their ancestors were farmers and it's their birthright) to being a farmer to make money. The end result is that the individual is both displaced from his labor/identity and concurrently his labor/identity is displaced from an inner and outer cultural narrative. There's a whole element here of power that's being left out... Marx unfortunately isn't the sort of thing of that can be distilled for dummies. You'll have to spend a lot of time thinking through the subtleties. And you'll need plenty of wine.
posted by nixerman at 10:05 PM on February 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Good answers above and nixerman is right about needing to put the time in - to simply confirm the point I can put it another way; labour is what makes us human. According to Marx, animals function instinctively whereas humans have the ability to reflect on their actions. That reflection is a necessity for the community and cooperation essential to the survival of the species. We reflect on our labour and its contribution and derive pleasure and happiness from that contribution. The capitalist, through force and domination, redirects our energies towards his desired ends, which is the anti-communal pursuit of his own wealth and power. As we are reduced to selling our own labour for someone else’s ends we are excluded from contibuting to the project of human civilisation. In this sense we are not just alienated from our work and its product but we are alienated from all humanity. We are left with nothing but our animal passions – and so we become more animal than animals – and thus sex, violence, eating and drinking, seem like the only authentic experience to be had, and the only solace to be found.
posted by anglophiliated at 3:36 AM on February 14, 2006 [2 favorites]

Widely established throughout a society, alienation leads into commodity fetishism (or religious estrangement) as a compensating behaviour. Many modern marketing companies are very adept at manipulating such fetishistic attachment. See: Apple, Nike, McDonalds, Coke, etc. Also, Vygotsky has a lot to say about how the early experience of alienation constrains the development of children so as to produce specific behaviours and concept exhibition in adults.
posted by meehawl at 5:13 AM on February 14, 2006

My understanding is more simple: "In this definition--that the laborer is related to the product of his labor as a strange, foreign object." That is to say (1) the capitalist takes the entire value output of the laborer, returns only a portion of the value as wages, and appropriates the rest; (2) the laborer is put into a position where economically he cannot even own the tools of labor; and (3) there are a series of psychological, social and personal costs for being in that position.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:33 PM on February 14, 2006

That is, to say, what idon'tlikewords said.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:34 PM on February 14, 2006

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