Any person who is conscious at any level of what happens in the world, from occurrences within their immediate surroundings to larger forces driving political economy in one nation-state or many, must comprehend that there is something wrong. Working men and women who toil day in and day out to make ends meet for themselves and their loved ones understand this feeling of “wrongness” particularly acutely.
As well, we are separated from one another, made to feel that we cannot trust in and rely on one another, and an essential loneliness follows from this. There is something in the everyday workings of our society which is amiss, which makes us feel as though we have been unfulfilled, marginalized and cut off from an otherwise more natural, more fulfilling existence.
This concealed pain and longing is given many names and supposed causes, with many “solutions” offered, from anti-depressant medications to trendy new cars and other goods to make one feel important for the things that they own. Institutionalized religion has offered its solution in the enlightenment and salvation that only otherworldly deities. However, for those interested in an explanation grounded in material reality (and outside of the typical paradigms of psychoanalysis and commodity fetishism) we must ask ourselves: what is the cause for this feeling? If we are to look at a materialist approach, then the answer would be alienation.
Alienation: What is it?
Alienation as a Marxist concept was first introduced in the first of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Transcripts, entitled Alienated Labor. Alienation entails worker’s labor being objectified and externalized from the worker. What this means is that our labor, which is what defines us as beings, what makes us who we are, is taken away from us, and made the object to another’s ends.
Political economy conceals the alienation inherent in the nature of labor by not considering the direct relationship between the worker (labor) and production. To be sure, labor produces marvels for the rich but it produces deprivation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back into barbaric labor, and it turns the remainder into machines. It produces intelligence, but imbecility and cretinism for the worker. (Marx 1844)
We live in a society wherein the labor of working people is taken from them for minimal compensation and turned into extremes of wealth, power and extravagance for a minority.
We are all pawns in this game; everyone must work, and in capitalism, it is all but impossible to work in any capacity other than in the service of the capitalists. Any and all illusions of personal freedom must be made to shatter when considering this essential economic reality, and as a result, the workers bear their chains.
Alienation’s Three Forms
In describing worker’s alienation from their production, Marx describes three forms: alienation from the product, alienation from production, and alienation from one another.
This means that we have little to no control over the things that we make, the processes in which we make them, and at the end of the day, we are made to see other workers as competitors, as alien to our experiences and therefore something we cannot identify with. The worker on the factory floor of an automotive plant, for instance, doesn’t get to drive home in one of the many automobiles he has helped create that day. No one will listen to how he thinks the process should be done (even if he has a brilliant plan to increase production). He is, like the mechanized robots that are increasingly called upon to do work originally done by other workers, a tool to those who control the factory, who control productive property. As well, to ensure that he keeps his job (which is probably going to be out-sourced to a country where labor can be exploited more cheaply) the worker must maintain an attitude of competition with his fellow workers.
It doesn’t take a working person long to think of times in which they’ve felt alienated in the workplace and in everyday life. These feelings channel themselves in a variety of directions as different answers are provided for the essential question “what’s wrong?” From spiritual and religious answers to alienation, to political and economist answers, one hears from any number of sources supposed cures for this alienation. Yet despite all of these answers being given, nothing really seems to change the origins of this pain. What is changed is how we perceive it.
The alienation of people in society has given rise to a great many social ills. Drug use, for instance, can be understood as being an effort at “self medication” by the alienated, who must alter their consciousness through chemical supplements to cope with this day-to-day pain. Patriarchy as well, the alienation of men from women, can also be understood as stemming from the domination both face within the realm of political economy. Individualism, the prioritization of the self above all others, is the logical conclusion of the alienation of workers from workers. All of these ills, which are each fetishized in capitalism through media and social structure, find common origin and provide a snake-oil cure for what ails us.
Capitalism’s need for division, derision and distress
This grim situation of pain without reprieve is a vital asset to those in power. Alienated workers are made to feel powerless and alone, not because they are powerless and alone, but because the notion that they are not is a deadly concept for the bourgeoisie. Consider that all of the advances of modern civilization, all of the creature comforts, the scientific innovation, the constructions of massive cities and burgeoning industry, everything that sets our society above the toils and tribulations of primitive societies, are all the product of working people. It is not the propertied rich who pave these roads, build these high-rises, grow and cultivate our food. It is not the bourgeoisie who manufacture products, provide services and uphold our society. It is working people through their daily labor that make all of this possible.
What if workers were to realize this genius of their own production, this massive power over labor which they control, this vast army of individuals whose common interests can unite them against a parasitic few who alienate them for personal gain? What if the architects of contemporary society decided that the products of their labor were indeed their own, and decided that a pittance for their labor isn’t enough? If this consciousness were to be achieved and acted upon, capitalism’s house of cards would collapse, leaving workers to construct a new society with their collective interests at heart.
Socialism: Freedom to produce, freedom from alienation
This society is what we call socialism. Working people under the dictatorship of the proletariat are no longer alienated from the products of their labor or the production process itself. Instead, they decide what is produced, how it is produced, and the benefits of this production are felt by all who labor on behalf of this society. As well, the various social mechanisms that are used to alienate workers from one another, are dispatched through a combination of education and obsolescence. No longer must workers jockey for positions serving a boss in a labor market; instead their skills are sought out and integrated within a production system organized around the needs of the many, not the profit motives of a few. The three expressions of alienation have been effectively combatted in this new social order by empowering workers with that to which they were entitled all along: the products of their own labor.
Conclusion: The War Against Alienation is the Class War
When one is feeling lost in this society; when one is made to feel powerless, under-appreciated and deprived of being and belonging, it is important to understand that such people are never alone. Working people have at their disposal the might and brilliance to build up a world from its most base components. It is not the fault of working people that they are made to feel marginalized and helpless. Rather, it is the fault of a larger political and economic system that makes them feel that way for its own advancement. The solution to this is problem is the combined energies and understandings of workers for the purpose of their own liberation. The class war is the war against our own alienation and repression, and it is through your own strength that it will be won.