Karl Marx on Alienation and Social Change

Karl Marx on Alienation and Social Change


According to this view, ever since human society
emerged from its primitive and relatively undifferentiated state it has remained fundamentally
divided between classes who clash in the pursuit of their class interests. Under capitalism, there is an antagonistic
division between the buyers and sellers of labor power, between the exploiters and the
exploited—rather than a functional collaboration between them. Marx’s analysis continually centers upon how
the relationships between men are shaped by their position in regard to the forces of
production, that is, by their access to scarce resources and power. Conflicting class interests are the central
determinant of social processes, they are the engine of history. The potential for class
conflict is inherent in every society that has a division of labor. For Marx, the history of mankind has a double
aspect: it was the history of increasing control of man over nature and at the same time, it
was the history of the increasing alienation of man. When people are alienated they feel powerless,
isolated, and feel the social world is meaningless. They look at social institutions as beyond
their control, and consider them oppressive. For Marx, all major spheres of capitalist
society—religion, state, economy—were marked by a condition of alienation. Alienation
thus confronts man in the whole world of institutions in which she is enmeshed. But alienation in the workplace is of overriding
importance because it is work that defines us as human beings; we are above all homo
faber. Marx insisted that labor was man’s essence. This assertion caused him to describe
the division of labor as something wrong with that essence. Marx believed that the capacity for labor
is one of the most distinctive human characteristics. All other species are objects in the world;
people alone are subjects, because they consciously act on and create the world, thus shaping
their lives, cultures, and the self in the process. Economic alienation under capitalism means
that man is alienated in daily activities—in the very work by which he/she fashions a living.
There are four aspects to economic alienation. Man is alienated from 1) The object of Labor;
2) the process of production; 3) himself/herself; and 4) fellow human beings. The social world thus confronts people as
an uncontrollable, hostile thing, leaving them alien in the very environment that they
have created. Marx’s analysis of capitalism was thus the
analysis of the alienation of individuals and classes (both workers and capitalists)
losing control over their own existence in a system subject to economic laws over which
they had no control. The worker is therefore reduced to a minute
part of a process, a mere cog in a machine. Work becomes an enforced activity, not a creative
or satisfying one. It becomes the means for maintaining existence, it is no longer an
expression of the individual, it is a means to an end. For Marx the source of this alienation
is in the “relations of production,” that is, capitalism, the fact that workers are
laboring for someone else. Capitalist societies are dehumanizing because
the social relations of production prohibit men from achieving the freedom of self-determination
that the advance of technology has made possible. If not for capitalism, the new technology
could be used to free men of rote, repetitive labor rather than enslaving men. According
to Marx, when men realize how capitalism robs them of this self-determination and freedom
(economic and social) the revolution will come. Marx’s focus on the process of social change
is central to his thinking. He believed that the development of productive forces was the
root of social change. In the process of transforming nature, however, men transform themselves.
Human history is the process by which men change themselves even as they devise more
powerful ways to exploit their environment. In contrast to all other animals who can only
passively adjust to nature’s requirements by finding a niche in the ecological order
that allows them to subsist, man is active in relation to his surroundings. People alone
fashion tools with which to transform the natural environment. In their struggle against nature to gain their
livelihood, men create specific social organizations that are very much in tune with the forces
of production. All of these social organizations, with the
exception of those prevailing in the original state of primitive communism, are characterized
by social inequality. As societies emerge from primitive communism,
the division of labor leads to the emergence of stratified classes of men. These strata
are distinguished by their differential access to the forces of production and thus their
differential access to power. Given relative scarcity, whatever economic
surplus has been accumulated will be taken by those who have attained dominance through
their ownership or control over the forces of production. The exploited and the exploiters have confronted
one another from the beginnings of recorded time. The dominance of the exploiters is often
challenged. “The history of all hitherto existing society
is the history of class struggles.” Classes through history: Free men and slaves;
Patrician and plebian; Baron and serf; Nobility and bourgeoisie; Bourgeoisie and proletariat;
Exploiters and exploited. For a more extensive discussion of Marx’s
theories refer to Macro Social Theory, available through Amazon.com at a reasonable price. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles
of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a fuller understanding of modern
societies. This book can be purchased at most online bookstores or at Athabasca University
Press. If you are short of funds Athabasca also offers a free pdf version of the work. A significant portion of the royalties I receive
for these books go to the Rogers State University Foundation in support of students in the Liberal
Arts. I thank you for your support and interest.

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