Marx distinguishes humans from other animals because humans consciously produce the means of their subsistence. Hence, ‘the most characteristic and essential human feature is that human beings produce (rather than forage for or hunt) their means of subsistence’ (Wolff, in Warburton, et.al. p.271). Another feature, essential to Marx, is that humans are communal animals: most people rely on community for clothing and food; and ‘language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men ... Consciousness is ... a social product’ (Marx, et.al. p.51). Marx rejects two-substance dualism – in which Cartesian doubt favours thought (the essence of mind); and the existence of God is required to prove the existence of extension (the essence of the material world). He also rejects the crude form of deterministic materialism, in which ‘people are wholly determined by their circumstances’ (Wolff, ibid, p.272), because people are active agents in the world rather than mere passive receivers of information. Human activity is propelled by the need of subsistence. This activity causes physical changes in the world. These changes complicate needs, create further needs and change human beings. Expanding populations compound the complexities of social intercourse. The things necessary for production (forces of production) – labour power, facilities, tools etc – develop in sympathy.
According to Marx, how individuals reproduce the means of their subsistence is a ‘definite form of expressing their life...’
As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production (Marx, et.al. p.42).
The idea that humans are essentially producers implies that the manner of production informs how flourishing or not a human life is. The process and result of production is fundamental to humanity’s essential nature. Therefore, according to Marx, productive labour should be pleasurable and fulfilling. With this in mind attention will turn to capitalism and the division of labour.
The social relationship of cooperation is ‘itself a “productive force”’ (Marx, et.al. p.50). This mode of cooperation or ‘social stage’ is always combined with a mode of production or ‘industrial stage’. Productive forces determine the nature of society. Under capitalism the material forces of production are the private property of the bourgeoisie. This is the relations of production. Objects (or commodities) produced by workers are also owned by the bourgeoisie until they are sold to other people. Workers have economic power over their own labour. But they are forced to sell it to the bourgeoisie in order to make money to survive. The concentration of capital forces workers into competition with each other.
The capital value of a commodity is relative to its demand. The relation of supply and demand establishes a dominating ‘invisible hand’ of market forces. The pursuit of increased efficiency and output forces a division of labour. Tasks are divided. Monotonous, demarcated stations appear on production lines. Technology forces workers into competition with machines. Humans are thus diminished to the level of automaton. Inescapable vocations, such as toolmaker, are forced on individuals (Marx, et.al. p.54). This nightmarish fusion of Lowry’s Industrial Landscape and Munch’s The Scream sets the scene for an examination of alienation.
‘If triangles had a God, it would have three sides’ (Protagoras, quoted in Wolff, op.cit. p.274). This articulates the notion that humans have created God in their own image. Humans transfer their qualities onto a celestial chimera and are then dominated because they worship and fear their own alienated attributes.
This illuminates capitalist alienation. Having created capitalism, humans come to be dominated by its market forces. At first glance it seems strange to invoke ‘worship’ as analogous to human attitudes to the market. But a banking crisis, for instance, seems a prescient example of human subservience to the turbulent altars of finance and industrial capital. For Marx, religious alienation also provides a register of the problem, specific to capitalism, of alienated labour.
Wolff describes four elements of alienated labour according to Marx (AA311 audio). First, workers produce objects they neither own nor control. The results of their labour are alienated. Market forces animate these objects: a drop in demand, for instance, can turn them against their creators. Frankenstein’s monster seems an appropriate metaphor here. Second, workers are alienated from their productive activity. Consider modern production methods that suppress meaningful expression: monotonous factory toil or repetitive burger flipping in fast-food restaurants, for instance. Third, the exiguity of expressive production opportunities alienates people from their species essence. Fourth, capitalist methods, including perpetual competition, alienate humans from each other.
According to Marx, the state itself is an alienated entity. North American states are an example of secularism and yet religion thrives. Therefore, ‘since the existence of religion is the existence of a defect, the source of this defect can only be sought in the nature of the state itself’ (Marx, p.9). The political elevation of humans above religion has not removed religion. Similarly, the political annulment of private property is only superficially achieved through political participation when the non-owner becomes the lawgiver for the owner (Marx, p.10). As Marx points out, the state still allows [and, under capitalism, requires] private property to have an effect in its own manner. Thus humans lead a double life: as communal beings through political participation; and as private individuals who treat themselves and other humans as means and become the playthings of alien powers. Marx describes this separation as ‘the secular division between political state [in which humans are individuals with political rights, or citizens] and civil society [the bourgeoisie]’ (Marx, p.11). The capitalist state, according to Marx, is a fake, alienated community in which the communal aspect of human essence is violated by private ownership. For Marx, only under communism will there be no alienation.
Communism, the stage in the history of society that Marx believes will replace capitalism, will be facilitated by the abundance created in an explosion of capitalist productivity. Private property will be eliminated and replaced by community of property. According to Marx, alienation will disappear under a communist system.
It is worthwhile reproducing the arguments analytically#:
Premise 1 – Human essence is characterised by production and community.
Premise 2 – What humans produce and how they produce informs the nature of individuals and society.
Premise 3 – Human flourishing in terms of pleasure and fulfilment is desirable.
Conclusion 1 – Productive labour should be pleasurable and fulfilling.
Premise 4 – Capitalism requires a division of labour.
Premise 5 – Division of labour leads to individuals being subservient to market forces.
Premise 6 – Division of labour leads to a lack of meaningful labour.
Premise 7 – Premises 5 and 6 lead to alienation.
Conclusion 2 – Capitalism leads to alienation.
Premise 8 – Communism involves a planned economy.
Premise 11 – A planned economy places market forces under the control of humans.
Conclusion 3 – Communism eliminates alienation of the sense described in premise 5.
Premise 12 – Capitalism operates through private ownership of resources.
Premise 13 – An abundance of resources provides the means to abolish capitalism and establish communism.
Premise 14 – The establishment of communism will allow people to do the jobs they want: ‘each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes’ (Marx, et.al. p.54).
Premise 15 – Given the choice, people will, or should, choose meaningful work.
Premise 16 – Meaningful work will remove alienation of the sense described in premise 6.
Conclusion 4 – Communism removes alienation of the sense described in premise 6.
We can assume for now that the arguments for conclusions 1 and 2 are sound.
The argument for conclusion 3 is potentially sound. If unfettered market forces lead to alienation in the sense described in premise 5, then it seems at least plausible that a planned economy would allow humans to regain control. Attention will turn to conclusion 4.
Premise 13 requires further discussion. Relations of production tend to the form that maximises the expansion of the forces of production. The ownership of the means of production by the increasing few will, according to Marx, lead to stagnation and decline, because this manner of relations of production becomes a fetter on the expansion of the forces of production. Seizure of power by an exploited proletariat, who can, apparently, transcend the liberal logic of private property, will coincide with the abundance required by communism.
However, there is no reason to suppose that such abundance is possible. Resources such as land and fossil fuels are finite, and, in the case of the latter at least, increasingly scarce. Without a technological breakthrough that somehow facilitates abundance the prediction is wildly optimistic (Cohen, AA311 audio). Although such technology cannot, in theory, be ruled out, a utopian Eden cannot be described as plausible. Society must require some alienated labour, because limited resources must be manipulated efficiently and alienated labour forms part of the ‘fittest’ (in a Darwinian sense) of the economic structures that have been tried. However, it seems necessary for a Marxian communist state to mitigate alienated labour as far as is practicable. Nurturing or coercing the human cooperative faculty with a view to creating people who consider the general will rather than their particular will seems requisite. This project may suffer, as Rousseau’s does, from a liberal critique (see Holden, (2009)). Attention will turn to whether the existence of alienation in a communist state should be a cause for concern for Marxist theory.
Marx’s alienation argument is an example of a perfectionist argument:
...resources should be distributed in such a way as to encourage the ‘realization of distinctively human potentialities and excellencies’, and to discourage ways of life which lack these excellencies (Lukes (1985), p.87, in Kymlicka, op.cit. p.297).
However, unalienated labour is not the only good. Conceptions of the good involve the production, consumption and enjoyment of myriad commodities and activities: music and art, for instance, as well as food, clothing and shelter. Kymlicka remarks that consumption is a good that may conflict with unalienated production (ibid. p.299). Unalienated labour is less efficient and more time consuming than alienated labour. Therefore, unalienated labour would leave less time for other activities. It is plausible that many people would want to trade some alienated labour for other goods, such as time with their families.
According to Cohen, this is ‘a crazy framing of the issue’ (AA311 audio). Cohen seems to assert that, despite abundance being contrary to Marx’s expectations, the existence of alienation does no violence to his theory. Is this right?
If Kymlicka is right, then, in addition to production and community, humans are characterised by their capacity as consumers. At first glance this characteristic does not seem uniquely human. All animals consume axiomatically. However, humans consume myriad commodities including time itself: for contemplative recreation and family interaction for instance. Premise 15 now seems problematic. The argument requires recalibration:
Premise 1: Human essence is characterised by production, community and consumption.
Premise 2: Given the choice people should choose meaningful time consuming work.
Premise 3: Given the choice people should choose some alienated work to make time for other conceptions of the good.
A contradiction! The obvious reconciliation is freedom of choice and balance. Resources should be distributed in such a way as to encourage these conditions.
The question of whether or not alienation is a worry for Marxist theory depends, I think, on interpretation. On the one hand Marx does seem to highlight unalienated labour as the communist ideal. But perhaps we should defer to Marx’s ultimate intention: to organise society in such a way that its members can flourish in complete freedom. Whether or not this is achievable with alienation is difficult to predict and seems to depend on an enhanced, yet free, expression of humanity’s cooperative faculty. Should we worry? I don’t know.
Cohen, G. The Open University (2006) Discussion of Marx’s The German Ideology, Milton Keynes, The Open University (AA311 Lecture CD 5 Track 2 (Audio)).
Holden, C. (2009), AA311 TMA 4, There are several ways of thinking about the idea that we should be forced to be free. Some of them are sensible and persuasive’. Is this statement correct?
Marx and Engels, (1974 edn.), (Lawrence & Wishart (tr.)), The German Ideology, Lawrence & Wishart Limited.
Marx, K. (2000 edn.), On the Jewish Question (Part 1), The Open University.
Warburton, N. et.al. ((2006) ), Reading Political Philosophy Machiavelli to Mill, The Open University.
Wolff, J. (1996), An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Oxford University Press.
Wolff, J. The Open University (2006) Discussion of Marx’s On the Jewish Question, Milton Keynes, The Open University (AA311 Lecture CD 5 Track 1 (Audio)).