I. Introduction
In the arena of modern philosophy the problem of defining membership in the human community has been of paramount importance. Where up until that point thinkers such as Descartes, Berkley, and Hume focused primarily on the interaction of forms and objects philosophers of the modern period began to take a more humanist course.
It became essential to define the actors (humans) in relation to activities of reason. For Hegel and Kant this meant agents existing and adhering to a moral dynamic that was determined apart from humanity by reason (to Hegel reason is given specifically by God). In adopting a materialist stance and divorcing a moral dynamic from anything beyond human interaction Marx was forced to frame his examination of personhood in purely social terms. He accomplished this in his essay “The Estrangement of Labor” by evaluating the status of a person as a dynamic between activities (labor) and objects (products). His conclusion: when a human is alienated from the activity of life (for Marx, labor) in relation to objects they lose what it is that makes them human: “The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things.” (Marx)

II. Four Aspects of Alienated Labor:

Marx identified four ways that workers are alienated from labor in the capitalist system. First, Marx claimed that workers are alienated from products. As a result of the interaction between private property and social labor a product’s value increases the more labor is put into it. Compare say, a t-shirt to a single stage 2 MeV linear Van de Graaff particle accelerator. The labor in the first case is probably performed by a single individual and the wage paid to that individual reflects the low value of that product. Also, at the very least the worker can own a similar object to the one produced. In the second case the product is the sum of the labor of an uncountable horde of individuals contributing knowledge and effort to this object, so when we consider the worker in the Chinese factory who soldered one of the many circuit boards together, he has no idea what his labor has accomplished, he has been given compensation far out of proportion to the product he has created, and he could never hope to match the value of the product to his labor.

Next, Marx says that workers are alienated from the act of producing. Workers do not own what they produce and “the product is simply the resumé of the activity, of the production.” (Marx) so therefore a worker can never “own” the process of production, his/her very own labor. This separation of actor from act creates a situation in which the act of producing an object that has become alien means that a worker “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.” (Marx)

Marx’s tertiary facet of estranged labor is that workers are alienated from themselves. To this point Marx introduces the concept of species-life in that man derives his being from nature both physically and in consciousness. Man’s self-definition results from his life activity, but unlike animals this activity (work) is not spontaneous or instinctual. Also unlike animals man can engage in work beyond his needs and in this way it becomes separate from his essential being and able to be commodified. This is where the alienation arises: “Estranged labour reverses the relationship so that man, just because he is a conscious being, makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means for his existence.” So what should be then end of life is the means and a worker is divorced from the very purpose of his being.

Finally, Marx argues that workers are estranged from other men. He poses this question: “If the product of labour is alien to me, and confronts me as an alien power, to whom does it then belong?” (Marx) Implying that if a product is not owned by a man the one who does own it becomes necessarily an alien other. This alien other who owns the product can not be related to by the worker because they did not participate in the labor process that created that object. The nature of private property comes into play in creating a division between worker and owner: “he [the worker] 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 as unfree activity, then he relates to it as activity in the service, under the rule, coercion, and yoke of another man.” (Marx) In being estranged from object and activities man must in this way be estranged from other men in relation to their position in the process of production. For Marx this manifests as classes, because the process of production creates a psychological necessity for the worker to regard the owner as hostile and separate in the same way he must regard the object.

III. Resolution

How is it that if the process by which man derives survival, meaning, and interaction is so corrupt we can hope for better? For Marx the answer comes in the elimination of private property. For all the estrangement and problems hitherto described Marx identifies private property as the source: “Private property as the material, summarized expression of alienated labour embraces both relations – the relation of the worker to labour and to the product of his labour and the non-workers, and the relation of the non-worker to the worker and to the product of his labour.” If private property were eliminated in a Marxist context this would mean that the process and product of labor would be owned by the worker and therefore be absorbed into his essential being. Given that in this context the worker would not likely want to sell of what is no longer alien to but is indeed part of the worker production would limit itself to social need. Also rather than relying on an arcane web of production to meet various needs the worker would engage in a variety of labor and this form of multifarious expression would be universal and therefore relatable.

IV. Conclusion

In examining estranged labor Marx identified private property as an essential component of class struggle. The fact that the worker did not own the product of his labor creates a tension between worker and task which filters into all of the other relationships that the worker must enter into as a result of labor. Therefore, according to Marx, it is of paramount importance that private property be abolished and the worker free to reclaim labor as the essential activity of his species-being.

Advertisements