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Marx on Alienation and Exploitation

By Frank W. Elwell

It is through work that human beings realize the self, through work that we become fully human. We differ from all other life on earth in that we realize our imaginations in action on the external world. For humans, the work process is a unity of imagination and action. In Capital, Marx writes:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in Honey Bee Combwhich a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman's will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be (Marx 1867/1887, Kindle Locations 2772-2786).

Man is above all else “homo faber,” man the maker. Capitalism, in its quest for greater profit, destroys this unity. It does this by breaking the labor process down into more and more simplified tasks, removing control of the work process from the worker, and separating intellectual from manual labor. In this process it is greatly aided by the employment of machinery—capital or “dead labour” that has been converted into an “automaton.”

Here as everywhere else, we must distinguish between the increased productiveness due to the development of the social process of production, and that due to the capitalist exploitation of that process. In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool, in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machine that he must follow. In manufacture the workmen are parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage. "The miserable routine of endless drudgery and toil in which the same mechanical process is gone through over and over again, is like the labour of Sisyphus. The burden of labour, like the rock, keeps ever falling back on the worn-out labourer (7315-7321).Automation

Every kind of capitalist production, in so far as it is not only a labour-process, but also a process of creating surplus-value, has this in common, that it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman. But it is only in the factory system that this inversion for the first time acquires technical and palpable reality. By means of its conversion into an automaton, the instrument of labour confronts the labourer, during the labour-process, in the shape of capital, of dead labour, that dominates, and pumps dry, living labour-power. The separation of the intellectual powers of production from the manual labour, and the conversion of those powers into the might of capital over labour, is, as we have already shown. finally completed by modern industry erected on the foundation of machinery. The special skill of each individual insignificant factory operative vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity before the science, the gigantic physical forces, and the mass of labour that are embodied in the factory mechanism and, together with that mechanism, constitute the power of the "master" (7325-7332).

Laborers become unskilled servants of the capitalist’s machinery to create more surplus value. Rather than realize the self, they become mere instruments of the capitalist in the production process.

Alienation is defined as the social-psychological feeling of estrangement from work, from our fellow human beings, and from the self. Marx believes that this alienation is rooted in the capitalist mode of production itself. Work becomes an enforced activity, something done for the paycheck alone; a place where the individual must deny the self, separating physical activity from mental life—not living as a full human being. The worker becomes alienated from all aspects of labor beginning with the product that they are producing. Marx (1964b, 122) writes: “The object produced by labor, its product, now stands opposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer… The more the worker expends himself in work the more powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to himself.”Not only is the individual alienated from the product he produces, but from the production process itself. And this is extremely important, recall, as human beings are defined by their work. He does not own the tools, set the pace, or determine his actions on the job. Marx continues,

Capitalist Alienation

However, alienation appears not merely in the result but also in the process of production, within productive activity itself. . . . If the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation. . . . The alienation of the object of labor merely summarizes the alienation in the work activity itself…This is the relationship of the worker to his own activity as something alien, not belonging to him, activity as suffering (passivity), strength as powerlessness, creation as emasculation, the personal physical and mental energy of the worker, his personal life. . . as an activity which is directed against himself, independent of him and not belonging to him (124-125).


In addition to becoming alienated from the product and the production process, the individual becomes alienated from the self. “Work is external to the worker. . . . It is not part of his nature; consequently he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself. . . . The worker therefore feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless (125). The more time that the worker spends on the job, the poorer her inner mental life, the less human she becomes. Since humans are above all else creative beings who realize themselves through work, alienation from work leads to alienation from the self, from fellow human beings, and finally from life itself. "What is true of man's relationship to his work, to the product of his work and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men. . . . Each man is alienated from others . . . each of the others is likewise alienated from human life” (129).

In the creation of surplus value and the degradation and alienation of labor, the capitalist is greatly aided by science and technology. Capitalism and its drive to increase profit become associated with the advancement of science and the application of technology in creating new products and in the production process.

Modern Industry rent the veil that concealed from men their own social process of production, and that turned the various, spontaneously divided branches of production into so many riddles, not only to outsiders, but even to the initiated. The principle which it pursued, of resolving each process into its constituent movements, without any regard to their possible execution by the hand of man, created the new modern science of technology. The varied, apparently unconnected, and petrified forms of the industrial processes now resolved themselves into so many conscious and systematic applications of natural science to the attainment of given useful effects. Technology also discovered the few main fundamental forms of motion, which, despite the diversity of the instruments used, are necessarily taken by every productive action of the human body; just as the science of mechanics sees in the most complicated machinery nothing but the continual repetition of the simple mechanical powers (Marx 1867/1887, 8221-8228).


Capitalism thus becomes committed to automation and technology to increase production and to lower the costs by replacing workers and simplifying the remaining work tasks.


For a more extensive discussion of Marx’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. (F. Engels, Trans. and Ed.) Public Domain Books, Kindle Edition, (2005).

Marx, Karl. 1867/1887. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1, The Process of Production of Capital. Edited by Frederick Engels. Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Public Domain Books, Kindle Edition (2008-11-19). Originally published as Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, vol. 1.

Marx, K. 1964b. Early Writings. (T. B. Bottomore, Trans. and Ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill.

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