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The Concept of Alienation in The Works of Karl Marx

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Karl Marx was very insistent when it came down to explanation of the nature of society. That is to say, he claimed that capitalism created a hostile, evil environment where people had no choice but to trade their souls for survival. Of course, Marx never said these actual words, but the combination of such ideas as alienation and commodity fetishism alludes to harsh criticism of capitalism as was. The central concept behind Marx’s theory is his idea of species-being (a theory that attributes additional importance to social interactions for defining humanity of an individual). Marx says that the concept of alienation which is an inevitable consequence of applying capitalist structure shall undermine species-being to the point where a person loses their humane individuality. An idea similar to that of alienation is commodity fetishism, the theory which describes the exchange of social interactions for tangible economic values when it comes to defining key characteristics of goods’ production and labor relationships. Marx believed that understanding these concepts was a lead-up to class consciousness – that is, when the workers become aware of the “soul-trading” mechanism other people put them in for profit and start a revolution.

Explanation of the theory of alienation by Karl Marx should start with species-being. It is expedient to review this as a starting point of Marx’s reasoning. That is to say, he viewed humans within the context of their social environment. Individuality as defined by Marx was derived from the people surrounding the individual and the nature of relationships with these people. According to Marx, the overall sum of all the social relations either condition an individual into a vane and hollow creature or form a strong personality with a defined sense of communal belonging. This conception might seem slightly too abstract and vague until one reviews Marx’s opinion regarding capitalism and its influence on the key feature of human nature. In this regard one could even go as far as saying that species-being is a theoretical frame of Marx’s criticism of capitalism in general.

Alienation, as described by Marx, is constituted by loss of social relation’s significance at a workplace and it eventually leads to degradation of personality or, as Marx poetically puts it, trading of one’s soul: “Because the worker is alienated from the process of production as well as the product of his labor, he becomes inescapably alienated from himself. It occurs when a worker does not have the power to make decisions concerning their craft or production process; they become expendable gears in a corporate machine ruled by the capitalist. Such attitude leads to depreciation of labor’s significance and downgrades it to a mere source of money and other assets of survival. Marx’s alienation, in other words, has little to do with literal meaning of the word but rather describes detachment from self. Such intangibles as the purpose of life, self-expression and social appreciation cannot exist when one is considered to be no more than an expendable and interchangeable part of the machine over which they have no control.

An important note to make considering Marx’s alienation is that it is closely intertwined with commodity fetishism. The latter is an approach to market relationships which dismisses relations between people and assigns priority to the relations between money and commodities because, as Marx claims, the latter is crucial for capitalist ideology. An example here would be a person buying a pair of boots from a cobbler; if they are afflicted with commodity fetishism, they would only view the cobbler as the manufacturer of the merchandise and limit their communication with him down to the act of exchange money for boots. Otherwise, the act of the labor’s appreciation and recognition would make the buyer view the act of purchasing as an addition to their interaction with the cobbler. The difference here is the perspective and quality of social interaction. One will notice that commodity fetishism is akin to alienation because both theories describe a situation where an individual’s labor is mechanical and/or is viewed without reference to the actual laborer. It would be an overstatement to say that commodity fetishism basically explains the same idea in different words, but one shall admit that the eventual results of both theories’ application will be the same. The only difference is that the theory of alienation primarily focuses on the attitude and approach at the workplace while commodity fetishism reviews market relations.

Interestingly enough, the arguments in favor of Marx’s views do not hinge on the appeal to social justice and end of capitalistic exploitation of labor, contrary to the popular belief. Rather, Marx was interested in depreciation of labor which made people less self-aware. The concepts of alienation and commodity fetishism are simultaneously used to appeal and to provide arguments for Marx’s vilification of capitalistic market structure. Class consciousness that is constituted by one’s awareness of one’s role in such structure is a combined result of dissatisfaction with job and lack of self-establishment. In other words, the feeling of being meaningless and expendable tool rather than a contributing individual is resultant from alienation and living in the society afflicted with commodity fetishism. According to Marx, human nature is bound to rebel against demeaning and dehumanizing environment, assess itself and, thus, realize its place. It is the condition for a revolution that Marx predicted, and it is considered to be the central premise of communism.

Works Cited

  1. Edles, Laura Desfor & Appelrouth, Scott. Sociological Theory in the Classical Era: Text and Readings. Sage Publications, 2015.

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