On Marx’s “Alienated Labour”, or How And Why Work Turns Workers into Aliens

Marx’s concept of alienated labour calls into question the basic relationship amongst workers, work, and those who pay them. This essay intends to unpack this concept and explore how he describes and develops it. Following that, the concept will be situated within the history of anthropological thought, allowing a consideration of why and how it remains important to anthropologists today.
To work and receive a wage in return. There can hardly be any other precept of socioeconomic life which is taken so completely for granted and which seems so clearly obvious and unquestionable to society at large. For the vast majority of people everywhere, finding and holding waged work is the main goal and activity of life. In almost any labour strife the main bones of contention will be the conditions of labour: wages and pay, benefits, hours, who does what, etc. That there has to be work for wages is never under question, not by the workers, and certainly not by the employers. Popular culture, reflecting and reinforcing the interests of the dominant classes through the prism of mass media and education, glorifies work in general, and work for wages by extension. Workers who devote their lifetimes to waged labour in a trouble-free and exemplary manner are hailed as heroes, by their families and by their employers, who are happy to give them gold watches upon their retirement. Work for wages then, is not simply a matter of survival, but can be viewed as a source of pride, an identity, a calling- testimony to the inherently social nature of work. Rinehart and Faber talk of work which can be “intrinsically gratifying” and our quest to find jobs that are interesting and challenging (1986, p. 7). The work available to the majority of people living under capitalist modes of production, however, is structured with the profits of capital rather than the needs and interests of the workers in mind, and it is under these conditions that “alienation” takes place.
Marx begins his exposition on alienated labour by a consideration of the political economy, that is, by clearly articulating how socioeconomic structures of power form labour relations. He observes the striking inequality of power between the worker and his employer. The lack of power of the worker has direct, tangible economic consequences, for the interests of the capitalists are automatically and by default assumed to be the determining factor in setting the terms of the relationship between them: “When, for example, the relation of wages to profits is determined, the ultimate basis is taken to be the interest of the capitalist” (Marx, in Wootton, 1996, p. 790). A few lines further, he puts the motivating force and basic foundation of this political economy in even plainer, absolutely clear language: “ The only wheels which political economy puts in motion are greed and the war among the greedy, competition.” (p. 790, author’s italics.)
Thus, the labour landscape is an arena of greed, where the winner is whoever can make the most profits. Like any war, there are casualties and victims, and in this one the victims are the workers, the casualties their souls. Marx proceeds then, to lay out clearly how the worker and his labour are constructed in this landscape. The labourer, lacking capital and land, is forced to sell the only thing he has in return for survival: his labour. But in doing so, a curious threefold process unfolds: he himself, his labour, and the object of his labour all become commodities. The fact of the sale of labour renders not just the product of labour, but the labourer himself and the process of labour into commodities. “Labour not only produces commodities. It also produces itself and the worker as a commodity.” (p.791)
What is the effect of this objectification upon the labourer and his work? Marx calls the products of such labour “alien objects”. They no longer belong to the worker, and the very fact of their not-belonging somehow diminishes or impoverishes the worker. The more he strives and produces, the poorer he becomes, as the process of production drains his life-force. The products do not just simply exist, they exist in opposition to the worker, exerting a negative force towards him. “The life he has given to the object confronts him as hostile and alien.” (p.791).
Wootton explains this alien hostility in terms of lack of creativity which marks the labour process under capitalism. He provides the example of baking a cake: if one bakes a cake for oneself or one’s loved ones, the process of producing the cake is filled with joy and creativity, it is, quite literally a “labour of love”. But if the exact same cake is baked under factory conditions, and as a result belongs to the owners of the factory, there is no creativity and joy involved, and the labour becomes merely an expenditure of physical exertion which not only brings no pleasure to the labourer, but also, with the prospect of baking cakes repetitively and continuously, a drain on his mental and physical faculties. And when the obligation to toil in factory prevents us from actually pursuing activities in which creativity would be satisfied and joy to be found, the resentment and frustration grows even stronger. Wootton develops the scenario even further: “If the cake factory in which I work lays me off…then I am part of society in which human effort is squandered and apparently impersonal forces (which result, however from individual decisions) shape people’s lives” (Wootton, 1996, p. 738).
The alienation of the labourer from the end product is merely the first of five aspects of alienation that afflict him. The second is his alienation from the process of labour, “the producing activity itself” (Marx, in Wootton, 1996, p. 792). A labour process in which the labourer has no emotional investment is an alienating process, resulting in the “estrangment” of the labourer and the “externalization” of the labour. Marx emphasizes that such labour is willing in name only, it is in fact, “coerced labour”. The political economy “masks” or hides the true coerced nature of externalized labour. The detestation and loathing with which workers regard their work proves Marx’s point: “…the worker does not affirm himself in his work but denies himself, feels miserable and unhappy, develops no free physical and mental energy but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind.” (p. 792). Thus, an activity which has the potential to be, as described by Rinehart at the beginning of this essay, gratifying, interesting and challenging is merely a fatiguing joyless chore undertaken for survival. This leads to a further aspect of alienation, described by Marx as “self-alienation”, in which man’s own activity is turned against him. When work becomes simply a means to an end, only a instrument, it is no longer a social activity which “embodies and personifies life” (Rinehart, 1986, p.12).
Species-alienation, or what Rinehart calls alienation from our essence as humans is another dimension of alienation. This is related to Marx’s view that our capability to undertake work that is purposeful and creative is an intrinsically human quality, and what sets us apart from animals. Deprived of this, our fundamental “human-ness”, we become debased to the levels of animals. Rinehart comments that our ability to “conceptualize and execute” work (Rinehart, 1986, p. 13) is a distinctly human capacity, and under alienating conditions, the unity between conceptualization and execution of work is broken, “as some people are simply required to perform tasks conceptualized by others.” (p. 11)
The final form of alienation discussed by Marx is perhaps the one of most interest from an anthropological point of view, for it concerns men’s relationships with each other. Marx argues that the different modes of alienation experienced, as described above, leads to “…the alienation of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts other men.” (Marx, in Wootton, 1996, p. 794). In other words, in a social system where the majority are constructed and treated as labour-producing machines, their worth measured in solely economic terms, and social relationships are reduced to their monetary aspect, people, being denied or alienated from their own humanity, treat each other as alienated beings.
Rhinehart elaborates further on this, clarifying how capitalist modes of production alienate us from each other, as they cause deep friction not only between the dominant and subordinate classes, but also amongst competing capitalists as they strive to oust each other from the market. Relationships are constructed on purely economic considerations, creating conditions of strife and hostility, often enough flaring into outright violence and warfare. Our societies are set up so that the different classes are virtually invisible to each other- something brought home to me when my daughter once remarked that poor people are only in stories. We only see each other as stereotypical members of mutually despised and feared classes: “This asymmetry of workplace relationships creates the foundation for a class structure that entails sharp differences in power, privilege and life chances, and that inhibit social intercourse across class lines.” (Rinehart, 1986, p. 13) The widespread phenomenon of poor-bashing, whereby it is considered completely socially acceptable by middle-class, educated people to indulge in derogatory remarks about “welfare bums” etc is an manifestation of this.
In order to theoretically situate the concept of labour alienation, it is necessary to trace its intellectual roots, as far as allowed by the scope of this essay. It is well accepted that Marx is influenced by Hegel’s philosophy of dialectics, and in their introduction to The Economics and Philosophics Manuscripts of 1844, where Marx introduces and develops labour alienation, Struik and Milligan trace its Hegelian roots (Struick and Milligan, 1970). Dialectics is taken to refer to a chain of reasoning in which “new concepts were derived from previous concepts by analyzing their limitations and contradictions, ‘negating’ every concept until a more embracing one is reached, and a new light is thrown upon the older concept.” (Struik and Milligan, 1970, p. 31). Hegel applies this philosophy to the labour process via the “dialectics of servitude”, through which both the “master” and the “servant” find their own mind (p. 36). He also speaks of alienation as a dialectical process whereby labour is “externalized” from the servant’s consciousness (p. 37). Yet Hegel’s philosophy remains in the realm of abstract, with a markedly optimistic note, and it remains for Marx to develop the concept of alienation as regards labour in a materialist framework and apply it systematically to the conditions he observed amongst the new, dispossessed and impoverished class of workers then mushrooming under the auspices of the Industrial Revolution spreading across Europe. He was able to bring celestial Hegelian speculations such as “mind and matter are a unity, matter being the alienated mind. Alienation is a relations of opposites, a disunity in what is finally a unity” (p.38) down to the earth, and write of alienation as “a social process, active in history, and history is determined by property relations and the class struggles.” (p. 38)
Indeed, one could go a step further and argue that Marx was the first thinker who analysed the conditions of labour, the working class and the human consequences of particular sorts of economic and production regimes in such a grounded, detailed and systematic manner. So, while scholarly work has been done on Marx as an anthropologist (Patterson, 2009), and while it is possible to compile a heavy volume on the history of the development of anthropological thought without including either Marx or specifically the concept of labour alienation (Bohannan and Glazer, 1973), yet I find his ideas to have particular resonance when thinking “anthropologically” about the effect of capitalistic modes of production on various groups of people and their livelihoods across the globe, as have established anthropologists such as Barber (2012), Mollona (2009) and Ong (1988), all of whom present detailed ethnographies dedicated to exploring these processes and the lived experience of them. Ong’s classic study of Malaysian female factory workers and their propensity to see “devils” in the workplace, resulting in hysterical fits can be considered a particularly vivid manifestation of labour alienation. Ong traces how the workers undergo a multi-level process of exploitation, through which the dominant regional and cultural patriarchy, the global forces of neoliberalization and the local attitudes and approaches of managers and medical officers combine, resulting in a toxic working environment in which workers are systematically marginalized and excluded, their basic rights abused. Seeing devils and collapsing in shrieking fits is the workers’ reaction to this extreme alienation (Ong, 1988).
Marx’s historical materialism draw attention to how technology and modes of production shape our lives and results in particular sorts of class formation, while his concept of labour alienation illuminates how labour forces structure our relationships and the relationship between classes, highlighting how the dynamics of power and the resulting inequality fuel oppression, conflict and social instability. Anthropologically speaking, he follows the footstep of Morgan Henry Lewis in the importance accorded to modes of production .Yet while Marx is known, rightly so, primarily as a materialist, I believe his handling of the concept of labour alienation shows his thought to have more nuance than the labels would allow. It is instructive to think that The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was not published in English until 1960, by which time “Marxism” as a particular canon of political thought and action primarily characterized by historical and technological determinism leading to worker/bourgoisie class struggles had been firmly established in both popular and academic discourse. However, it quickly gained traction, resulting in a plethora of essays and expositions on the concept of alienation (Struik and Milligan, 1970). Following the footsteps of Hegelian dialectics, the concept brings together both idealist and materialist elements, absolutely acknowledging the fundamental importance of economics and labour yet positing a rich life of the mind and soul, a life which should be led in a fulfilling, emotionally sustaining and creatively joyful manner. Failure to do so endangers our mental well-being and fosters unstable and conflict-ridden social relationships, frustrating our humanity at every turn.

Barber, P. G., & Lem, W. (2012). Migration in the 21st century: Political economy and Ethnography. New York: Routledge.

Bohannan, P., & Glazer, M. (1973). High Points in Anthropology. New York: Knopf.
Marx, K. (1970). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. (D.J. Struick & M. Milligan, Trans.). London: Lawrence and Wishart. (Original work published 1932)

Marx, K. (1996). “Alienated Labor.” In Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. David Wootton, ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. Pp. 790-797.

Mollona, M. (2009). Made in Sheffield: An Ethnography of Industrial Work and Politics. New York: Berghahn Books, Inc.

Ong, A. (1988). The Production of Possession: Spirits and the Multinational Corporation in Malaysia. American Ethnologist, 15, 1, 28-42.

Patterson, T. C. (2009). Karl Marx, Anthropologist. Oxford: Berg.
Rinehart, J. W., & Faber, S. (1986). The Tyranny of Work: Alienation and the Labour Process. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Canada.

Wootton, D. (1996). Modern political thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub.


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