Marxism 101: Alienation

In this tutorial, I will discuss the Marxist theory of alienation. Alienation is when we are disconnected, or removed from something else. We are alienated from that other thing. What Marx observed, was that the captialist mode of production causes many variations of alienation experienced by people. In this tutorial, I will explain three forms of alienation: from labour, from society and from nature.

Alienation from labour

Alienation from labour is when we consider the relationship between the worker and the business owner, or the proletariat and the bourgeoise. The work that it is done by the worker involves the creation of goods that don’t belong to them. Those goods belongs to the business owner. From this, the worker is alienated from their labour since they are creating something in a context where they have no control on how it is made, how much it costs, how much of it they get (if they get any of it at all), under what conditions they make it, and so on. This alienation stifles the individual expression of the worker and reduces them to a ‘cog in the machine’. This is alienation from labour in a nutshell.

Alienation from society

Under an overall economic structure that encourages extracting as much labour as possible from workers, this places work as the main focus of worker’s lives. Since the goal of capitalists is to get as much labour out of a worker as they can, this encourages to have them work as hard as they can for smaller wages. This results in the worker spending most of their time working in order to recieve an income that will allow them to meet their basic needs. Prior to laws protecting 8-hour working weeks and weekend penalty rates, workers would work 15-16 hour days 6 days a week (sometimes more), where they literally would only stop work to eat, sleep then return to work again.

The consequences of a society that makes the majority of people spending the vast majority of their lives working in a situation where they have no control, alienates them from focusing on social concerns with one another. Spending time with our family, friends and engaging in community focused activities is placed secondary to fulfilling our requirements as workers.

Alienation from Nature

This is where the natural world has its value reduced to its potential profitability and exchange on the market. Nature is no longer treated as something good in of itself, or good for society. From this, society’s treatment of nature is dependent on how profitable it is. This is why many contemporary environmentalists, such as Extinction Rebellion, are critical of Capitalism in their environmental activism.

Alienation, or alienations, are driven by a phenomenon which is described in Marxist theory as ‘Commodity Fetishism’. This will be discussed in the next tutorial. If you wish to learn more about Alienation, visits marxists.org or get a copy of Karl Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts.

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

9 thoughts on “Marxism 101: Alienation”

    1. Thanks Jason,

      One sense of alienation would tie into the lack of investment into preparing for the pandemic. Most epidemiologists saw this coming but there was little preparation because there was little exchange value in preparing for a pandemic that we were unsure if/when it would occur. Another expression of the alienation would be the hoarding of toilet paper, desparation of workers demanding they be recognised as ‘essential’. This flows on to the problem of ‘false consciousness’. Seeing all of our value as an employed worker made it very difficult to see that actually staying home not working held more real value than going to work and putting yourself and others at risk. But when we see all value in terms of exchange value, this is intuitively rejected by many people (why should the government pay for people to stay home when I have to still work!?)

      This I think would fall into the ‘alienation from society’ form of alienation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You touched on some really good points. Alienation from society sounds about right. As for Australia, in some respects you might say you guys are doing rather well compared to other Countries; i.e., in keeping the number of Covid cases down. This would probably have more to do with the opposite of Marx’s Alienation concept, yes?

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      2. Thanks Jason,

        In Australia we are getting into a good place. NSW is in doughnut and no new cases in other states. There is a mixture of good approach and dumb luck, combined with that we our own island. Sadly we have our own share of symptoms of alienation just like everywhere else. Our current government, which is rather conservative, has been hostile to income support for workers affected by Covid related job losses, and still is. The confict between essential workers being made to work and those on income support is a common example. But overall, yes I feel extremely lucky to be in the situation we are in as an Australian as opposed to being in the US right now.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I am not too sure regarding the first question. Although I’m a Marxist, I’m a new one. So far I’ve read Vol 1 Capital, the Communist Manifesto, the 1844 Manuscripts, Engel’s Origin of the family, Luxemberg’s reform or revolution and a variety of secondary material. Is there specific texts you’re aware of that may help with this question?

      As for the second question, yes I agree. Although he rarely uses the term, Richard Wolff in his advocacy for worker cooperatives stresses the antidemocratic nature of the typical workplace. Alienation is the concept I think he is appealing to here.

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      1. You’ve gotten further than me in Capital so far then lol. I listen to a lot of Marxist podcasts though so I’m aware of some of the issues. Althusser proposed a hard break between early Marx and late Marx, and he believed the latter was a true Science while the former was immature humanism. I know that humanist Marxists have the opposite preference. I have a closer affinity to that camp morally, like yeah democracy in the workplace would be a very good idea. economically I’m more of a post-Keynesian. But we’ll see if finishing Capital changes my mind.

        I guess my question is pretty advanced, probably Marxist scholars all have their own view on it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Sorry for the late reply, work and christmas and all. Yes indeed the term used often by Engels and Luxemberg was ‘scientific socialism’. Regarding Marxist humanism I’m not too sure, haven’t investigated that debate enough to take a stance. Yes I get along pretty well with Keynesians, social democrats, and so on (petty much any move away from neoliberalism I’m all on board for lol).

        Thanks for the question/comments and merry christmas/happy holidays 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Same to you!

        Do you know Plastic Pills? They’re a bunch of philosophy phds who aren’t boring lol. They have a good video explaining humanism versus post-humanism.

        I just started reading Anwar Shaikh, the Marxist economist. I’m pretty impressed so far, he seems to have a commanding grasp of all the schools of economic thought including post-keynesian. This book (Capitalism, Competition, Conflict, Crisis) is a brick through.

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