An Analysis of the Centrality of Labor-Alienation in Capitalist Society

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An Analysis of the Centrality of Labor-Alienation in Capitalist Society

Marx’s concept of the alienation of labor represents a fundamental transition in thinking regarding labor’s place in a civil, industrialized society. Europe as a whole was undergoing rapid and extensive societal and economic change when Marx crafted one of his first critiques of labor in political economy, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in 1844. Marx’s analysis outlines many of the crucial problems inherent to capitalism, more importantly he relates them all back to one central source – the alienation of labor. The estrangement of labor in modern society contradicts the very notion of natural human purpose, namely that it gives rise to unimportant and trivial material interests as the central goal of man’s existence, which in no way fulfills the true fundamental social needs of human beings in society.

Marx often capitalizes on the notion that what distinguishes humans from other animals is rooted in 1) our existential purpose (through our relationship with nature and our surroundings) and 2) our social interaction (our relationship with other human beings) – in short, this can be thought of as labor (because, in the capitalist system, labor is a process which encompasses both of those things to some degree). In capitalism, both of those relationships are diabolically purported into a system in which the worker is subject to misery and suffering by nature of his occupation. In civilized societies, man’s primary goal in life is not constrained to the necessities of subsistence (food, water, shelter, procreation) because, according to Marx, if material production is the point of departure when analyzing capitalist society, we can accept the aforementioned as “given”. Without these limitations, human purpose expands exponentially, no longer are people required to do labor (as we have defined above, by the two principles) simply for the sake of their mere survival, but rather labor’s purpose ought to be to explore, discover, enjoy, and fulfill the desires of the worker. In other words, labor ought to be the direct fulfillment of a human need. In capitalist society, however, this concept is practically turned on its head. The laborer does not toil for any pure individual fulfillment, but rather to earn wages to fulfill his material needs. Labor is now a means to fulfill a need, rather than what we described it ought to be – the direct fulfillment of need itself. Essentially what follows is the estrangement of the worker from his labor on four levels: 1) from the product of the labor (because he does not directly utilize it) 2) from the process of production (he gains no individual fulfillment from doing something that has no direct benefit to him) 3) from humanity and the worker’s potential (all his potential talent and merit goes to waste when he is forced into doing a menial task which does not exhibit his true capabilities) and finally 4) from other human beings (the laborer’s relationship with his superior, the capitalist, is riddled with contempt due to the fact that the capitalist has direct control over the subsistence of the laborer because he has control of his wages). These four qualities affirm Marx’s initial claim at the beginning of Manuscripts – the worker “becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities” because his purpose is simply to be exploited over and over to produce the ultimate product of labor – capital, a product of which he reaps no direct benefit (Reader, pp. 70). Furthermore, in capitalism since the laborer cannot utilize labor as his means of fulfillment, he must seek it from elsewhere, during his leisure time. All this translates to the laborer looking for external, material wants to satisfy his desires, rather than achieving the true fulfillment of human purpose which is present when workers toil for their own direct pleasure. This creates a sense of false societal happiness in which the working class is...
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