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A Terse Elucidation of Marx’s Concern with Alienation in the Mature Writings

By David Fields

Note: The references below are drawn from The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker.

Is Marx’s concern with aspects of alienation subsumed in his mature writings? To suggest so is a falsity. Marx’s depiction of the proletariat becoming, in the Hegelian sense, emancipated from the objective conditions of estranged labour, is not withered as the analysis moves toward the technical conditions of production. Marx’s humanism is still apparent.

In Wages, Labour, and Capital, Marx explicates that labour power is a life activity (204). It is the manifestation of human creativity, so that when it is sold as a commodity, a worker, in fact, sacrifices his life; the “product of his activity is no longer the object of his activity” (204-205). Life, as such, no longer has meaning.

Marx asks a pertinent question: “And the worker, who for twelve hours weaves, spins, drills, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stones, carries loads, etc.-does he consider this twelve hours’ weaving, spinning, drilling turning, building, shoveling, stone breaking as a manifestation of his life, as life” (205)? The answer is a resounding no: “On the contrary, life brings for him where this activity ceases, at table, in the public house, in bed […] The twelve hours’ labour, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, drilling etc., but [only] as earnings […] If the silkworm were to spin in order to continue its existence as a caterpillar, it would be a complete wage-worker” (205).

Another example is Marx’s attention to commodity fetishism: “In production, men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by co-operating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations does their action on nature, does production, take place” (207). This actuality is mystified given that “the noble reproductive [labour] power that the worker surrenders to the capitalist [for sustenance]” (209) is the mechanism that generates the “means of employment” (210), of which labour, which by definition “possesses nothing but its capacity to labour” (208), socially depends on. This social dependency is the force that manufactures ‘false consciousness for “to say that the worker has an interest in the rapid growth of capital is […] to say that the more rapidly the worker increases the wealth of [capitalists], the richer will be the crumbs that fall to him” (211).

In Marx’s Grundrisse, there are more examples of where Marx alludes to alienation. For instance, Marx begins his analysis with a scathing critique of Enlightenment ideology: “The [rational] individual [who] belongs among the unimaginative conceits of the eighteenth-century Robinsonades […,] which brings natural independent, autonomous subjects into relation and connection by contract”, is an “ideal whose existence is [systematically] project[ed] […] by [the] detach[ment] [of the individual] from [his] natural bonds” (222). Hence, “forms of social connectedness confront the individual as mere means toward his private purposes, as external necessity” (223). And to suggest that material production, of which forms the bedrock of society, is determined “by isolated individual[s] […] is as much as an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other” 223). Society “does not consist of [isolated] individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which […] individuals stand” (247).

In continuance with a concrete understanding  of the nature of commodity fetishism, Marx indicates that the unity of production, distribution, and consumption is a mystification that clouds the reality that the worker is inherently an agent in production, of which the worker’s social position determines its pattern of distribution, and ultimately its pattern of consumption (223-234)…the unperceived “mutual interaction” that consummates the capitalist system as an “organic whole” (236).

Furthermore, Marx discerns that when labour exchanges with capital in the selling of labour power, a worker “divests himself” of his “vital forces” to the submission of superfluous “forced labour”, surplus value, of which work in production is in excess of that which is necessary for the means for “mere subsistence”, to generate a “general form of [capitalist] wealth (247-249). This facet of capitalism is striking for that it inevitably blinds the worker from realizing that his social condition is, indeed, a relation of domination similar to that of slavery, or what Marx defines as “direct forced labour” (250). Work in capitalist production is “indirect forced labour” for that wealth generated from labour is not accumulated for the gratification of overlords, but exploited to foster general industriousness that generates the means of employment, the means of subsistence, of which labour, by definition, socially depends on. Workers are nothing else than soulless cogs in a wheel, an “alien person”, whose objective social conditions appear as separated, independent, and of another kind (252-253).

Examples of Marx’s adherence to the thesis of alienation are also prevalent in Das Kapital. We again see commodity fetishism highlighted: “A commodity is […] a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason the products of labour become commodities, social things, whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses” (320). Commodities thus appear, according to Marx, as a social hieroglyphic (322), an alienating state of existence where one “cannot decipher the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them […] in the same way [that] light from an object is perceived […] not as the subjective excitation of the optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself” (321).

Marx also rehashes his argument, albeit in condensed form, of labour power as a life-activity that is ultimately dispossessed in capitalist exchange. When a capitalist purchases labour power for capitalist production, “the labourer, instead of being in a position to sell commodities in which his labour is incorporated, must sell that very labour-power, which exists in his living self” (337). Workers are free in the double sense; on the one hand, “as a free man, [the worker] can dispose of his labour power as his own commodity, on the other hand […] he has no other commodity for sale, which is short of everything necessary for the realization of his labour power”. This is an estrangement whose unadulterated existence makes the so-called rational-maximizing individual a self-perpetuating mythological understood form of social life (324).

In hindsight, Marx’s interest with the social conditions of alienation is not abandoned as he matures. To suggest that this is indeed the case would be to assume that there is supposedly an epistemological break between Marx’s early and later writings. This, however, would ignore a critical comprehension of Marx’s work as a totality.

Originally posted on URPE Blog

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