Karl Marx opens “Estranged Labour” (1844) with harsh criticism of what political economy truly is, as well as its abilities and, much more significantly, its inabilities. Marx emphasizes repeatedly that although political economy can acknowledge that there are relationships like that of labor and capital, it fails entirely to explain the inner-workings of relationships such as these. In this failure, Marx states that, “the only wheels which political economy sets in motion are avarice and the war amongst the avaricious—competition” (Marx 1844, 32). In other words, political economy fails to most things essential to system; it does, however, catalyze extreme greed and competition.
Marx goes on to discuss thoroughly one of the most pivotal relationships in political economy: that of labor, capital, and the alienation and estrangement of the worker. The first distinct genre of alienation described is the commodification of labor and the worker. Essentially, the more product (and therefore profit) a single worker is able to produce on account of his labor, the cheaper the commodity the worker becomes. Due to the fact the worker works at a fixed rate, more profit is being gained solely because of his work, but he does not receive any additional compensation.
Following, Marx describes the process of alienation that occurs between the worker and nature. Although the nature of the external world is always necessary, because the labor itself could not produce without material, the relationship between the worker and nature mutates as alienation ensues. Eventually, as opposed to perceiving nature as the fundamental of life that it is, nature is relegated to being perceived as just raw materials used by labor for the sake of production in order to maintain a physical existence.
Estrangement also obscures man’s perception of himself and other men. Firstly, estrangement takes hold of man’s relationship to himself. Due to the fact labor becomes external to the worker, it can be understood as forced or coerced. During the activity of production, man is external to himself and the object he is creating is external to him. Therefore, as soon as he is able to rid himself of labor, his life-activity and the most human thing he participates in, he does and his life becomes inverted; the worker feels the most human doing things that animals do as well, and the least human doing the thing that is the most human (because of it’s conscious aspect).
The aforementioned consciousness only results in further estrangement and alienation on the part of the worker. The same consciousness that makes man the most human, makes him a free species being, leads him to eventually misconstrue the difference between the life of the species and the means of individual life. Labor, one’s productive life, becomes a mere means of supporting physical existence—the means of an individual life—when in fact one’s productive life really is the life and essence of the species. In objectifying labor through production, a man’s species life is objectified, and the same consciousness that made him a species being removes him from his inorganic body.
The self-estrangement that occurs in large part to man’s consciousness eventually leads man to be estranged to other man as a whole, as well. From the worker’s perspective, their labor and the products of it are alien to them. Since the worker is estranged from his labor, it must be man of another caliber, then, to whom this product of labor belongs. The alienation of the product and the labor instill feelings of hostility; the worker, then, only knows to feel that same way about the owner and coercer of product, labor and alienation: man.
- When adhering to a political economy, the worker is commodified and people fall into one of two categories (classes): “property owners” and “propertyless workers.”
- Political economy can convey material processes and take them for laws, as well as catalyze both avarice and competition, but it fails to make any thorough explanations.
- Political economy lacks the ability to explain, and therefore it cannot counter-act particular doctrines, like that of craft liberty of division of landed property.
- It is important to understand how concepts and processes within a political economy connect and interact with each other.
- Political economy does not answer questions, but makes simple deductions based on basic relationships. It does not speak knowingly of the inner-workings of these relationships.
- The more efficient (increasing value) a commodified worker, the cheaper the commodity he comes (devaluation).
- The objectification of labor occurs as labor is used to create product. Alienation occurs when loss of the object and reality are experienced on account of the worker.
- “Labour itself becomes an object’ (Marx 1844, 33) and as a worker produces more, estrangement to objects leads him to possess fewer [objects]; he falls victim to capital.
- The more a worker expends himself on alienated, external objects, the less “himself” the worker has for his own sake.
- The nature of the external world is necessary, for the labor itself could not produce without material.
- As labor interacts with external world and satisfies labor’s means of life, it is taking from the worker’s means of life.
- In receiving both an object of labour and means of subsistence, the worker becomes a slave to his object and knows himself as a worker before a physical subject.
- As the quality of the worker (in regards to him personally) and his life go down, the quality of his product goes up. The quality of the worker’s life and his product share an inverse relationship.
- “Political economy conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature of labour by not considering the direct relationship between the worker and production” (Marx 1844, 34).
- It is through the actual producing of the object, the action, that the worker becomes estranged. The process of working is the process of alienation.
- Since the worker, when participating in forced labor, is external to himself, he feels the most human when doing things animals do and the least human when doing the most human activity.
- As opposed to estrangement in regards to objects, self-estrangement occurs when the worker relates to the emasculating suffering of the act of production that he engages in.
- It is the act of treating one’s self as a universal free being that makes man a species being.
- “Nature is linked to itself” (Marx 1844, 36) because man’s inorganic body is nature—making nature man, as well
- Estrangement in labor leads to man’s deformation of the concept of life of the species into that essence being a mere means of individual life.
- Labour, productive life, becomes a mere means to supporting physical existence when in fact productive life is the life and essence of the species.
- Since man makes his life-activity¬ an object, he is conscious of his life-activity and that consciousness makes him a species being. Estrangement reverses this relationship.
- Man produces universally and animals produce individually.
- In objectifying labor through production, a man’s species life is also objectified. The same consciousness that allowed him to be a species being is tearing him from his production and his organic body.
- “Consciousness which man has of his species is thus transformed by estrangement in such a way that the species life becomes for him a means” (Marx 1844, 37).
- Man estranged from product of his life-activity means that, consequently, man is estranged to man.
- Although labor is alien to man because man does not feel as though it belongs to him, it is only man who owns and benefits from it [labor].
- Since the worker is estranged from his labor, it must be man of another caliber to who this product of labor belongs.
- “If the worker’s activity is a torment to him, to another it must be delight and his life’s joy” (Marx 1844, 37).
- If product of worker’s labor is alien and hostile, the owner of that product and the objectified labor is too perceived as alien and hostile.
- “Self estrangement can only become manifest through the real practical relationship to other men” (Marx 1844, 38).
- Private property is the product of alienated labor—not just a static facet of political economy.
MARX, KARL. 1844. “Estranged Labour.” Pp. 32-38 in Social Theory: The Multicultural Readings (2010) edited by C. Lemert. Philadelphia: Westview Press.
Original source: ENGELS, FRIEDRICH. MARX, KARL. 1844. Pp. 70-79 in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 edited by Robert C. Tucker. The Marx-Engels Reader, 2d ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
(See Lemert 2010, 32 for “original source” citation*)