Karl Marx’s Social Theory of Alienation Essay
In this easy, Karl Marx’s theory of alienation will be discussed. The discussion will focus on the meaning of alienation and the structures that promote it in the capitalist society. The four main types of alienation identified by Marx will also be discussed.
Alienation and the Capitalist Society
Alienation refers to the transformation of individuals’ labor into a power that controls them like a natural human law. Alienation is a product of commodity fetishism, which is the belief that non-living things or commodities possess human power that is capable of controlling the activities of individuals (Peffer 46-55).
In this respect, alienation is a situation in which a person feels estranged from the goods and services that he has produced. The worker invests his or her time in the production of a good or service. However, he becomes estranged because he does not own the product.
Marx believed that alienation is perpetuated by the basic structures of the modern capitalist society. In the pre-capitalist world, blacksmiths were in control of their work (Rubin 7-55). They were able to determine their work schedules, the quality of their products, and their relationship with their colleagues.
In addition, they owned their shops and had a say in how their products were sold. However, in the capitalist society workers have no influence over what they do at the workplace. As a result, laborers are no longer in control of their lives. In the capitalist society, workers are considered an extension of machines that can easily be replaced (Rubin 7-55).
Thousands of workers congregate in designated venues where they carry out repetitive and closely overseen tasks. As a result, laborers become alienated from the activities that they engage in at the workplace. In this respect, Marx argued that capitalism has to be abolished to end alienation of workers.
Alienation and Exploitation
Marx argued that alienation led to exploitation of workers in the following ways. To begin with, workers were underpaid because they were alienated from what they produced. In particular, workers were not paid the actual value of their labor because they did not own the products that they produced.
Capitalists exploited workers by deliberately paying them low wages while selling the products at a high price to earn a profit. Alienation from work processes also led to exploitation at the workplace. Workers were subjected to poor working conditions that led to injuries and monotony because they did not have a say in the planning of the production processes.
The Four Forms of Alienation
The first form of alienation is the estrangement of workers from the production process. Laborers have no control over the production process because they do not own the means of production, which include land, machines, factories, and raw materials (Peffer 48-53).
The production process is controlled by a hierarchy of managers who make important decisions on behalf of employees. Managers also design tasks that laborers have to carry out in a machine-like manner. This leads to alienation because the production process is impersonalized.
The second form of alienation is “estrangement of workers from their output or products” (Peffer 49-51). In particular, workers lose ownership of what they have produced to capitalists in exchange of a wage that does not commensurate with the value of their labor. The third form of alienation is based on the fact that labor is considered part of the means of production that is controlled by the entrepreneur.
In particular, workers are alienated from each other because they cannot determine the way they relate to their colleagues at the workplace. Estrangement of laborers from their human nature is the fourth form of alienation. This form of alienation occurs because workers are denied the opportunity to engage in free and thoughtful production, as well as, to own their output.
Alienation as a Product of Definite Social and Economic Conditions
According to Marx and Mandel, alienation results from the manner in which the productive forces and the relations of production are organized. The forces of production encompass the capital and the economic conditions that entrepreneurs need to engage in productive activities.
The relations of production are the social conditions that determine the relationship between workers in the production process. “The mode of production is a definite form of expressing one’s life” (Rubin 12-43). Thus, everything that workers produce leads to the creation of an alienated world to which they do not belong because they have no control over the social and economic conditions under which they work.
The arguments of Marx and Mandel are convincing because the problem of alienation in the capitalist society is attributed to social and economic conditions. Generally, economic conditions such as competition force capitalists to organize the production process in a dehumanizing manner to make profits. Social conditions such as poverty and illiteracy force workers to accept jobs even if they are alienated and exploited. The social and economic conditions that lead to alienation are often created by the capitalist production system.
Peffer, Rodney. Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.
Rubin, Ian. Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, New Delhi: Aakar, 2007. Print.
Alienation at Foxconn
Marx’s theory of alienation will be used to explain the conditions of workers at the Foxconn assembly plants in China. Foxconn is one of the largest employers in China. The company manufactures electronics and technology products on behalf of major companies such as Apple. The company has frequently been accused of subjecting its employees to unacceptable work conditions.
Alienation from Work
The working conditions at Foxconn are a true reflection of Marx’s description of alienation in the capitalist society. The company employs over one million workers who work in various factories in China (Luk). Despite their large number, the employees have very little say in the company since the management controls every aspect of the production processes. The management also controls the behavior of employees. Workers are expected to follow several rules strictly like machines.
Besides, workers are hardly given the opportunity to participate in the formulation of the rules that govern production activities at the company. Majority of the workers perform simple routine and monotonous tasks such as picking and labeling smartphones at the assembly lines throughout the day.
Since workers have no control in the company, they are subjected to long shifts of up to 13 hours in a day (Norris and Appelbaum). In addition, they are exposed health hazards such as toxic chemicals because of their inability to demand for a safe work environment. The poor working conditions have led to stress and suicide among workers in the company.
Alienation from Products
Workers at the company have always complained of poor wages. The employees work for approximately USD 400 per month (Norris and Appelbaum). This pay is hardly enough to cover the employees’ expenses, especially, if they remit part of the income to their families. As a result, majority of the company’s employees cannot buy the expensive electronics such as the iPhones that they produce on a daily basis.
Nonetheless, Foxconn makes huge profits by manufacturing iPhones on behalf of Apple. The information and technologies developed by the employees are considered the property and proprietary secrets of Foxconn. Thus, workers are not allowed to take information or electronics out of the production facilities.
This conforms to Marx’s assertion that workers are alienated because the fruits of their labor are taken away from them by the capitalists. Foxconn’s employees are not assured of overtime pay despite the fact that they often exceed the legally allowed number of working hours. Those who are lucky to receive overtime pay earn as little as USD 2 for every extra hour. Thus, alienation has led to exploitation of Foxconn’s workers.
Alienation from other Workers
Workers at Foxconn have no control over how they relate to each other. They strictly follow whatever they are told by the supervisors at the factories. This means that workers cannot organize themselves in a manner that they consider appropriate to improve their performance.
Interaction or talking among employees during the working hours is prohibited because it is considered interruptive. Employees hardly get time to interact with each other since they rest for only ten minutes during their shifts and once a week. However, the weekly day offs are not guaranteed since employees are regularly forced to work for seven days a week to meet production targets.
Alienation from Human Nature
Foxconn’s employees are estranged from their own human nature because they invest a lot of time and energy to produce products that they do not directly own. They work only for wages rather than to achieve personal satisfaction. This perspective is supported by the fact that most of the company’s employees are dissatisfied with their jobs (Norris and Appelbaum). Lack of meaningful engagement is one the reasons that have led to frequent occurrence of riots at the company’s factories.
According to Marx theory, workers can only overcome alienation if they are able to control their workplaces effectively. This means that workers must be able to influence the process of producing and selling various products, as well as, how they relate to each other. Specifically, workers have to work voluntarily under their own terms and conditions (Peffer 47-54). This can only be achieved if workers own the means of production.
In this respect, Chinese workers can overcome alienation if they own the companies that employ them. For instance, Faxconn’s employees should own a significant percentage of the company’s shares to overcome alienation and exploitation. Owning the company will give workers the opportunity to determine how it is run in terms of the working conditions and production processes. In addition, the workers will share the company’s profits. Consequently, they will no longer be alienated from their products.
Marx’s theory also advocates for a revolution by workers to abolish capitalism. Although capitalism might not be defeated in China, Foxconn’s employees can organize themselves into labor unions to resist the company’s malpractices. In this case, Foxconn will be forced to address the needs of its employees to avoid the costs associated with prolonged and frequent strikes.
Luk, Lorraine. “Foxconn Confirms death of Employee in Shenzhen”. Wall Street Journal, 2014. WSJ Archives.
Norris, Floyd and Binyamin Appelbaum. “The iEconomy: How much Do Foxconn Workers Make?” New York Times 24 February 2012. NYT Archives.
Peffer, Rodney. Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.
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