Last Updated 15 Feb 2021

Discuss Marxist’ Theory of Alienation

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When considering the concept of sociology and its definition, one immediately thinks of trying to understand the world in which we live. However, for Karl Marx we should not only understand the world, but also seek to actively change it (Macintosh, 1997). The concept of alienation differs in terms of its sociological meaning in relation to that of the psychological definition and has been used to describe many other phenomena’s over the last four centuries.

The aim of this essay is to assess the concept of alienation according to Karl Marx and explore his theory relating to four differing perspectives assigned to this, whilst also researching its historical roots and any relevance in today’s society. The concept of alienation in relation to sociology was developed by Karl Marx (1818-1883), a German philosopher, political economist, revolutionary and the founding father of Communism. His ideas for this theory originated in the writings of Feuerbach, who along with George W.F Hegel, were major influences on Marx. However, unlike Feuerbach, who believed that religion had a negative impact on human experience and that man was alienated from god, Marx considered man to be alienated from man in a social context. Indeed, Marx criticised Feuerbach’s work entitled ‘The Essence of Christianity’, which was published in 1841 for not developing the concept of alienation further by linking it to economic production strategies.

In it, Feuerbach insists that visions of god being similar to their own image allow for them to alienate themselves from this fictionally created character. Therefore, issues regarding low self esteem and other social or personal problems can be diluted by visiting places of worship. He insists that guidance, leadership and solace can be found within the church. Indeed, Feuerbach argued that the church was used by the government as state apparatus to control society (Hughes et al, 1995 pp. 29-30).

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Marx took these points onboard and rather than relate them to religion, embraced it to include the notion that alienation was an objective condition associated with the social and economic attributes of capitalism, thus leading to alienated labour. For Hegel, human thoughts were continuously developing and advancing throughout history, thus providing a more knowledge and rational understanding of society (Hughes et al, 1995, pp. 25-26). Unlike, Marx, who states materialism and economic power, shapes our thinking, Hegel insists it is the other way round and that mind shapes matter.

In other words, our knowledge shapes the need and inventiveness needed to shape future materials. Historically, according to Hegel, by exploring previous economic processes, then the material base on which societies, institutions and ideas are built are in evidence due to rational logic and natural progression. Marx however, disagrees with this theory. He believes that such abstract ideas did not exist and therefore provided limited explanations relating to the social world. The true nature of human experience therefore and life were totally under emphasised.

His theory of historical materialism was constructed further in future writings. ‘The first historical act is . . . the production of material life itself. This is indeed a historical act, a fundamental condition of all of history’ (Marx & Engels, 1976). His many writings, which pned four decades, underpin what has become known as Marxist theory and are used to develop our understanding of many areas relating to social life (Abercrombie et al, 2000). However, Marxist theory is primarily based around the class conflict of the bourgeoisie, i. . ruling class who own the mode of production and the exploitation of the proletariat, i. e. working class who are forced into selling their labour. The 3 stages relating to the industrial revolution have led to his alienation theory being supported by many sociologists. First came the agricultural revolution (1700-1800), followed by the industrial revolution (1800-1950). The final stage of these phenomena was the service revolution from the 1950s to the present day. Economic and surplus values are at the heart of Marxist theory.

For Marx, alienation is an objective condition associated with the social and economic attributes of capitalism and results in alienated labour. The main use of Marx’s theory relating to this concept is in relation to the form of labour in any given capitalist society. However, he also talks of ‘alienation’ in the sphere of social and economic relations (Turner, 1999) Marx argues that humans are denied their basic natural essence, and as such was only realised in their labour. This allowed for a creative activity which was carried out in unison with others.

Marx was of the opinion that people transformed a world outside themselves. Now the processes relating to production were one of ‘objectification’. By this he means that man now produces material objects that embody human creativity, yet leaves them feeling detached and separated from the creator. Once the product is objectified, man no longer recognises himself in the product and autonomous manufacturing techniques leave him feeling alienated. Within capitalist societies Marx identified four levels of separation resulting in the concept of alienation. 1) Within a capitalist society the worker has no control over the fate of their production, therefore alienating them from the results of their labour. Although having been involved actively in the production of such commodities the worker is left feeling subdued, unattached and emotionally removed from the end product. This is now controlled by others, and as increased production multiplies, so does the division and separation of the labour process. (2) The worker is alienated from the act of production. For Marx, no individual satisfaction is achieved as the worker’s own creativity is alienated from production.

Furthermore, external constraints forced upon the worker removes any attachment from the’ fruits of their labour’ and in doing so, the product ceases to be an end in itself with work becoming merely a commodity. To the worker, the saleability of the product is their only concern. (3) The worker is alienated from their ‘specific being’ or human nature. Marx states that the individual’s human qualities are deprived. This is due to the first two levels of alienation, as outlined above, reducing the workers creative production activities and thus removing themselves from their natural self being and converting them into social animals. 4) The worker is separated from other humans. The emergence of capitalism has transformed human social relations into market relations. According to Marx, people are now judged, not be their human qualities and attributes but rather by their position within the market (Giddens, 1970). For example the separation of labour is also the separation of man from man in relation to class conflict and competition and also lends theory to their alienation of the products of their labour.

Capital itself can also be seen as a source of alienation because its accumulation generates its own needs which reduce people to the level of commodities (Haralambos, 1998). The above four levels of separation and alienation of man is intrinsically linked and can be used to identify phenomena in regards to any society. Many pro-capitalist economists agree with Marx’s theory that all humans are treated as commodities that can be rented and that everything can be traded for monies. For Marx, this ensures that the gap between rich and poor widens, with both lasses pushing in opposite direction. However, he attacks other economists’ interpretations of the causes of capitalism and believes that they do not distinguish between both capitalists and the workers. Marx argues that competition is seen as an enforcement mechanism of the capitalist’s mode of production (Reiss, 1997). According to Marx, as all aspects of feudalism are connected, then so too are all aspects relating to capitalism. He is quoted as saying, ’’the worker becomes the poorer the more wealth he produces’’ (Marx, 1976).

In other words, as the worker increases production, this only enriches their bosses whilst they still remain poor. Capitalist economists however, view each aspect of feudalism as an accidental corruption in relation to capitalism. Marx also explores the historical development of alienation and its intrinsic link to the division of labour. As society changes and tribes and villages continue to expand, so too does the division of labour (Rius, 1996). For society to survive trade and exchange must occur.

This leads to more growth in exchangeable goods which in turn leads to an upsurge in use-value and exchange-value commodities. When considering use-value, this relates to how in demand a commodity may be of use to the individual. However, exchange-value relates to what commodities can be traded for other objects. For Marx, commodity fetishism has attributed to the alienation of man from the fruits of their labour (cowling, 1989). There are many examples of alienation in today’s society. The term Fordism originates from Henry Ford and the techniques he initiated to instil mass production.

Indeed, his ideas and practices are still dominant in today’s society and are at the forefront of all technological mass production facilities and businesses. To enable production on such a large scale, Ford redesigned the whole manufacturing capabilities of his workforce. Unlike industrialists of the nineteenth century where skilled labour and handmade crafts were a necessity in the making of goods, Ford recognised an ability to mass produce by giving individuals a particular task in relation to their labour duties.

This would be made possible by re-designing all machines to carry out one specific purpose, rather than numerous functions (Watson, 2003). As such, there was now no need for skilled persons in which to operate machines. Individuals were now taught how to use particular machines which they would now carry out monotonously for the rest of their employment. This de-skilling technique ensured minimum waste and maximum output as the machine only had one way in which to operate. Ford realised that once you standardise the design of the car, you can standardise the whole production system.

Thus, with the standardisation of machinery producing standardised parts, it now allowed for mass reproduction as all parts are identical therefore interchangeable. Although production of Fords automobiles had increased rapidly, the initiation of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s (1856-1915) scientific management system would ensure mass production on an even larger scale. Taylor was the man who introduced ‘time and motion’ studies to the workplace. He carried out an experiment on a pig iron gang at work. By observing their working habits, Taylor was able to redesign their work pattern.

Like Ford, his task was to break a job down into standardised parts. He initially listed a set of rules to which the workers must comply to and then instructed them when to start, walk, lift and stop. Once the experiment was complete Taylor found that their productive output had increased by 400%. Taylor’s results would now allow for managers to command instructions to staff who would carry out tasks they specifically assigned to. This would undoubtedly lead to a separation of labour and also man’s alienation from man, as people who had previously worked side by side where now given specific tasks (Hughes et al, 1995).

Ford would eventually instil Taylor’s scientific management technique into his workplace to generate even more productivity. To do this Ford introduced the assembly line. Before this point, many of his employees worked unsupervised and at their own pace. However, with the emergence of assembly lines, workers now had to work in unison with the speed of the production line, and not that of the individual. This technique has greatly enhanced fords production levels and as such, Fords’ automobile plant in River Rouge USA, is now the largest in the world.

By the 1990s over 10,000 people were employed there and over 90,000 cars and trucks were being produced each year (Watson, 2003). . Other examples which support Marx’s theory on alienation include multi-national companies such as McDonalds and Burger King, who epitomise our need for fast food productivity and back up his argument of commodity fetishism. Regardless of which outlet of McDonalds visited, the consumer will receive identical foodstuff and levels of service due to the standardisation of the product (Huczynski, 1991). Also, such companies are immediately recognisable due their uniforms and company logo.

Mass reproduction is applied to give the consumer a standardised food source which consists of various items such as burger, bun, relish and tomato. A time scale is also in place and many of the products on offer are controlled by a timer which goes off when certain items such as French fries and burgers are deemed ready. The main objective is to get the product to the consumer as quickly as possible with the minimum fuss. This is made possible by the way each McDonalds’ outlet is designed. By using both Fordism and Taylorist techniques workers can produce vast amounts of food that can then be passed onto the consumer within seconds.

Marx’s concept of alienation is evident here as there is no need for skilled workers such as cooks and chefs to be employed due to the nature and resulting end product of such businesses (Huczynski, 1991). A critique of Marxist theory would be to suggest that if alienation is produced and enacted by humans, then surely they also have the ability to change and reverse it. It is also contradictory as individuals opinions of alienation differ in relation to each person’s objective situation and consciousness.

Although it cannot be denied that workers within capitalist societies do contribute to the common wealth as stated by Marx, the emergence of flexi-time, paid holidays and overtime empowers the worker and enables them to generate extra sums of money for themselves (Watson, 2003). Also, working for someone else may perhaps lessen the burden experienced by others, such as those who own small businesses. It is easy to engage Marx’s suggestion that workers lack rights, and there is much evidence to support this with the emergence of sweatshops and low paid immigrant workers (Rattansi, 1982).

However, trade unions play a significant part in readdressing these issues by way of fair representation. Many jobs available to the masses today, do in fact, alienate workers and help establish capitalist theories, but humans have the freedom to change jobs or start their own businesses and trade unions are also in place to protect and represent employees (Giddens, 1971) His ideologies can also be construed as outdated as most of his concepts and terminologies are from over 100 years ago.

Man may have been separated by man in relation to labour over centuries, but although this may be true in some aspects, technology and working conditions have rapidly improved over the same period. We also have the ability to influence each other rather than work in isolation. It appears that his concepts of alienation, although significant in his earlier political works and in lending credibility to research at that particular time, are rarely given a second thought in his later writings.

Discuss Marxist’ Theory of Alienation essay

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